On Sep. 21, the Vols committed four turnover en route to a 34-3 loss to the Florida Gators. Many players walked off the field Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Florida with with their heads hanging low. Tennessee was 1-3, with their previous losses to Georgia State and BYU.
Head coach Jeremy Pruitt gave a frank speech in the locker room after the game. He followed that up with a second speech when the team landed in Knoxville that night.
Those meetings changed the course of Tennessee's season.
The Vols fell to the eventual SEC East champion Georgia Bulldogs two weeks later. The loss dropped their record to 1-4 and ESPN football power index gave Tennessee a 6 percent chance of making a bowl game. However, Pruitt had much more confidence.
"I felt like we had a chance to have a good football team. We stubbed our toe a little bit early on, and that’s nobody’s fault but mine," Pruitt said.
The Vols won six of their seven remaining games, ending the year on a five-game winning streak. This earned Tennessee its first bowl bid since 2016.
"I don’t want to take anything away from the teams that beat us...But we contributed a lot to that by turning the football over by not playing clean ball, by not executing," Pruitt said. "So we improved as the season went, which is what you want to do."
The improvement took place both offensively and defensively.
Redshirt junior quarterback Jarrett Guarantano started the season with seven touchdown passes and four interceptions in the first four games. He was benched for freshman Brian Maurer in the second half of the game at Florida.
Despite losing his starting job, Guarantano appeared in the six games after Tennessee's loss to the Gators. In that span, he threw six touchdown passes and just one interception. His efforts coming off the bench led the Vols to victories over Mississippi State, South Carolina, UAB and Kentucky.
It also helped him regain the starting quarterback position for the final two games against Missouri and Vanderbilt.
Guarantano passed for 415 yards and two touchdowns against Missouri. It was just the eighth 400-yard passing performance in Tennessee football history. That led the Vols to a 24-20 victory over the Tigers. It lifted Tennessee to a 6-5 record, earning bowl eligibility.
Defensively, the Vols held their final seven opponents under their scoring average. They tallied eight interceptions and 22 sacks. The defense also had a goal line stand to seal the win against Kentucky on Nov. 9.
"Unless you were here the first day that I walked in this building, I don’t think you understand how far we actually have come. Coach Fulmer was here. It’s a long ways, I can assure you of that," Pruitt said.
After Saturday's win over Vanderbilt, which snapped a three-game losing streak to the Commodores, the Vols finished the regular season 7-5. They finished with a 5-3 SEC record, matching the best conference record since 2007.
Their bowl opponent will be revealed on Dec. 8.
"I’m looking forward to bowl practice so we can continue to develop as a football team," Pruitt said. "We have a long ways to go from where we want to get to. And we want to finish."