The Tennessee Volunteers' 2019 season has been interesting, to say the least. After the worst start imaginable, no one could have envisioned the unlikely turnaround that would ultimately lead the Vols to a 7-5 record and their first bowl appearance in three years. And while it wasn't always pretty, year two of the Jeremy Pruitt era has provided us with plenty of memorable moments, along with several standout performances and a host of Tennessee players deserving of accolades. With that in mind, it only seems fitting to take a look back at some of the highs and lows that encompassed a wild regular season for the Vols.
Offensive MVP: Jauan Jennings, WR
The heart and soul of the Tennessee offense in 2019, Jennings leads the Vols in receptions (57), receiving yards (942), and touchdowns (9). And no one on the Tennessee roster displays more leadership, toughness and competitive spirit. Jennings will conclude his legendary career at Tennessee ranked among the top 10 in school history in receptions (137), receiving yards (1,955), and receiving touchdowns (17).
Defensive MVP: Daniel Bituli, LB
We'd be remiss to not give a tip of the cap to All-SEC safety Nigel Warrior (SEC-leading four interceptions) and outside linebacker Darrell Taylor (team-high seven sacks and eight tackles for a loss) for their immense contributions this season. However, there has been no bigger catalyst to the success of Tennessee's defense in 2019 than Bituli. Despite missing the first two games of the season, Bituli leads the Vols in tackles for the third year in a row with 82. He also has 4.5 tackles for a loss, three sacks, and a blocked punt against South Carolina that resulted in a scoop-and-score touchdown. Bituli was twice named SEC Defensive Player of the Week and earned second-team All-SEC honors from the conference coaches.
Best Freshman: Henry To'o To'o, LB
The highly touted freshman linebacker lived up to his lofty preseason billing, making an immediate and lasting impact for the Tennessee defense in 2019. To'o To'o finished the regular season third on the team in tackles with 64, to go along with five tackles for a loss and a fumble recovery. For his efforts, To'o To'o solidified a spot for himself on the Freshman All-SEC team, joining Tennessee offensive linemen Wanya Morris and Darnell Wright for that honor. He's also received Freshman All-American recognition from several media outlets.
Best Play of the Season: Eric Gray's 94-yard TD run vs. Vanderbilt
The second-longest run in Tennessee history was the highlight of a breakout performance for the true freshman running back. Gray ultimately set a new freshman rushing record, running for 246 yards and three touchdowns in the 28-10 win over in-state rival Vanderbilt.
Best Performance by a Player: Jarrett Guarantano vs. Missouri
It was a tale of redemption for the redshirt junior quarterback after a string of bad performances cost him his starting role earlier in the season. Still nursing a broken bone in his non-throwing hand, Guarantano made his first start in weeks and proceeded to torch the No. 1-ranked pass defense in the SEC to the tune of 415 yards (fourth-most in school history) and a pair of touchdowns, earning SEC Offensive Player of the Week honors in the process. More history was made in the win over Mizzou with Jauan Jennings, Marquez Callaway, and Josh Palmer becoming the first trio of Tennessee wide receivers to eclipse the 100-yard receiving mark in the same game.
Best Game (Team Performance): 42-21 victory over South Carolina
The underdog Vols capitalized on 485 yards of total offense, a second-half shutout by the defense, and a pair of special teams touchdowns to snap a three-game losing streak against the Gamecocks in dominant fashion.
Defining Moment: Beating Missouri to become bowl eligible
The 5-5 Vols made their way to Columbia as a four-point underdog in search of that all-important sixth win to become bowl eligible. It was eerily similar to the situation that Tennessee faced just a year earlier when the Tigers dealt the Vols the first of two ugly losses to close out the season, denying them a postseason invite. But things would be different this time around. In the face of skepticism, Tennessee would go on to knock off Missouri 24-20 to guarantee a bowl berth for the first time in three years.
Biggest Surprise: Bouncing back from a 1-4 start
Following a 1-4 start to the season that included embarrassing losses at home to Georgia State and BYU, Tennessee was given less than a five percent chance to become bowl eligible. The resilient Vols would go on to emphatically defy those odds, winning six of their next seven contests and closing out the regular season with five straight wins to secure a spot in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl against Indiana.
Biggest Disappointment: Losing to Georgia State
This could qualify as the "the biggest surprise" of the 2019 season as well. Tennessee entered the season opener at home close to a four-touchdown favorite against a Georgia State team coming off a 2-10 season and a last-place finish in the Sun Belt's East division. The Vols exited the game with a 38-30 loss, arguably the worst defeat in program history. Georgia State would go on to win seven games and earn a bowl berth of its own to help ease some of the embarrassment.
Senior Missed the Most: Jauan Jennings, WR
Jennings made his way to Rocky Top as an aspiring quarterback. He will leave Knoxville as one of the best wide receivers in school history and among the most beloved players to ever put on a Tennessee uniform. From his iconic 63-yard touchdown catch in the 38-28 win over Florida to his epic “Hail Mary” grab to stun Georgia, Jennings' career highlight reel is nothing short of legendary. Tough, competitive and clutch are just a few words that come to mind when describing Jennings. But it may be his leadership that is missed the most next season.
Player to Watch in 2020: Jarrett Guarantano, QB
All eyes will be on Guarantano as he enters his final season in Knoxville. His improvement, or lack thereof, will probably be the single biggest factor in deciding how Tennessee's season goes in 2020. Will he finally take the big step forward that Vol fans expected this season, or will he once again find himself struggling to hang on to his starting job? With highly touted freshman Harrison Bailey and Maryland transfer Kasim Hill joining Brian Maurer and J.T. Shrout, the competition at quarterback will be fierce if Guarantano does slip up.
Biggest Offseason Question Mark: Big shoes to fill
There's no question that this year's senior class played a huge role in Tennessee's remarkable turnaround. And it will be a very tall order to replace the production and leadership left behind by players such as Jauan Jennings, Daniel Bituli, Marquez Callaway, Nigel Warrior, and Darrell Taylor. Filling those voids will also be a necessity if the Vols hope to continue to trend in a positive direction next season. While there is reason for optimism with plenty of promising young talent returning to the Tennessee roster in 2020, there's also cause for concern given the size of the shoes that need to be filled.
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.