Optimism reigned supreme as the Tennessee Volunteers began the 2017 season with a Top 25 ranking and an exciting come-from-behind victory over Georgia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game. At that point in time, Vol Nation could not have envisioned the series of events that were about to unfold. Events that would ultimately culminate in a historically bad season, the end of the Butch Jones era, and one of the craziest coaching searches that college football has ever witnessed.
While highlights were few and far between for the Vols during a turbulent 2017 campaign, it wasn’t all terrible. Team 121 did feature a handful of players worthy of acknowledgement. And there were a few celebratory moments worth reliving. So, with that in mind, let’s take a final look back at the good, the bad, and the ugly that was Tennessee football this past season. Then we can all get back to the excitement that is brewing on Rocky Top for a new era of football under head coach Jeremy Pruitt. Here now are the 2017 Tennessee Volunteer team awards.
Offensive MVP: John Kelly, RB
The season didn’t end as well as it started for the junior running back, and there were a few bumps along the way. However, Kelly was easily Tennessee’s biggest star on offense in 2017. He led the team in touchdowns (9), rushing yards (778), receptions (37) and finished third in receiving yards (299). His 1,077 yards from scrimmage this season also ranked in the top 10 in the SEC.
Defensive MVP: Rashaan Gaulden, DB
Vol fans will never forget Gaulden’s infamous double-barreled, one-finger salute to the Alabama faithful. But the junior defensive back will best be remembered for his outstanding play this season. According to Pro Football Focus, no one on Tennessee’s defense graded higher this season than Gaulden (84.1). He led the Vols with three forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries, while ranking in the top five with 65 tackles. He also had five pass breakups and a key interception that helped spearhead a dramatic comeback against Florida.
Best Freshman: Trey Smith, OL
Smith graded out among the top freshmen in the country in 2017 regardless of position and was widely regarded as Tennessee’s best offensive lineman this season. For his efforts, the former 5-star prospect continues to rack up postseason accolades. He was the only player on the Vols’ roster named to the 2017 All-SEC team (second-team AP and coaches). He also was recognized as a Freshman All-Conference selection and will likely pop up on several Freshman All-American lists once those are announced.
Best Play of the Season: Game-clinching stop against Georgia Tech to complete a wild comeback win in 2OT
After dominating the Tennessee defense for much of the night, Georgia Tech once again turned to its triple-option attack for a potential game-winning, two-point conversion in double overtime. Vol defensive end Darrell Taylor would have nothing of it, however, stuffing Yellow Jackets quarterback TaQuon Marshall behind the line of scrimmage to secure a 42-41 victory and the Volunteers’ biggest win of 2017.
Best Performance (Player): John Kelly vs. Florida
It could easily be argued that Kelly’s four-touchdown performance against Georgia Tech is most deserving of this award. But it was his effort against Florida that was most memorable. The junior running back never looked better racking up career bests in rushing yards (141) and receiving yards (96), adding a touchdown in the narrow loss to the Gators.
Defensively, Daniel Bituli’s performance against Georgia Tech gets the nod. The sophomore linebacker accounted for 23 tackles to go along with a forced fumble in the victory over the Yellow Jackets.
Best Game (Team Performance): 42-41 win over Georgia Tech in 2OT
The 42-7 blowout win against FCS opponent Indiana State was probably Tennessee’s best performance of the season, but that hardly qualifies. So, it has to be the Vols’ comeback win in double-overtime against Georgia Tech. The Tennessee defense struggled mightily throughout that contest, but the offense had maybe its best outing of the season, helping Tennessee erase a 14-point deficit to send the game into overtime. The Tennessee defense would then come up big when it mattered most (see above).
Defining Moment: “Hail Mary” loss to Florida
There were several moments that could be classified as “defining” for the Vols’ 2017 season. However, it was Feleipe Frank’s 63-yard touchdown strike to Tyrie Cleveland in the closing seconds of a 26-20 loss to Florida that seemed to set the stage for the Vols’ downward spiral. The following week, Tennessee struggled to beat UMass at home, setting off the start of a colossal offensive touchdown drought that would continue for 15 consecutive quarters. The week after that, the Vols would get blown out 41-0 by Georgia, suffering their worst home defeat since 1905. Tennessee never quite recovered after that.
Biggest Surprise: The offensive line
Surprises were commonplace for Tennessee football in 2017. Unfortunately, most of them weren’t of the good variety. But the offensive line probably stands out the most. It was considered the team’s deepest position group heading into 2017 and perceived as a major strength. But as the season progressed, attrition and injuries took a serious toll. Tennessee’s offense quickly deteriorated as a result. By season’s end, the Volunteers were down to as few as four healthy scholarship offensive linemen, all of which were freshmen.
Biggest Disappointment: The end result
Tennessee’s 4-8 record pretty much sums up everything you need to know about a historically bad season for the storied program. The Vols would go winless in the SEC and lose eight games for the first time in 121 seasons of football.
Senior That Will Be Missed the Most: Trevor Daniel, P
Daniel began his career at Tennessee as a walk-on, but he exits as the best punter in school history. Which says a lot, given the Vols’ rich history of great punters over the years. Daniel’s 47.5 yards per punt average in 2017 ranked third in the nation, breaking Jimmy Colquitt’s long-standing, single-season school record in the process. Daniel also holds the school record for career average at 45.9 yards per punt. His ability to dictate field position was invaluable for Tennessee over the last three seasons, and he will be sorely missed in 2018.
Player to Watch in 2018: Nigel Warrior, DB
Rashaan Gaulden may have been Tennessee’s defensive MVP for 2017, but Warrior was a very close second. The sophomore safety finished the year second on the team in tackles (83). Additional highlights include: a sack, three pass breakups, three forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, and a 70-yard interception return for a TD against Missouri. Warrior has the potential to become one of the SEC’s top defensive players in 2018 under the tutelage of new head coach Jeremy Pruitt.
Biggest Offseason Question Mark: The new regime
The Jeremy Pruitt era of Tennessee football is officially underway. And with that comes an almost endless list of unknowns for the Vols heading into the offseason. From scheme to personnel, we can probably expect to see a wide variety of changes for a program in desperate need of an overhaul. But at this point, there are still more questions than answers regarding the future direction of Tennessee football. It will be exciting to see what the new staff brings to the table.
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.