It might seem insignificant for a once-proud Tennessee program to celebrate a bowl win in Jacksonville. But consider this: Entering 2014, UT had had more head coaches (three) than bowl appearances (two) since its last postseason victory (vs. Wisconsin in the 2008 Outback Bowl). For a fan base more acclimated to SEC title runs than mid-major bowl berths, folks in Knoxville were getting restless.
That’s why Tennessee’s 45-21 win over Iowa in Friday’s TaxSlayer Bowl was so important. It doesn’t mean the Vols are automatically SEC contenders in 2015. But it does mean second-year coach Butch Jones can add another big brick to his foundation, one that’s seemingly getting stronger with each passing month.
The Vols were a different team in the season’s second half, especially after quarterback Josh Dobbs took over as the team’s starter against South Carolina on Nov. 1. From there, Tennessee won three of four games to reach bowl eligibility for the first time since 2010. On Friday, UT looked like the better team from the beginning. Dobbs (205 yards, three touchdowns) led the offense to the end zone on each of its first four drives, and five of the first six. Tennessee led Iowa 35-7 at half by compiling 321 yards on 9.2 yards per play.
Iowa, which capped a disappointing 7-6 season with the bowl loss, finally found a little offense in the second half. It scored three fourth-quarter touchdowns, but the Vols had built too big a lead for the Hawkeyes to rally.
Jones likes to preach the process in his program, and it’s easy to see why. When he took over for fired coach Derek Dooley before the 2013 season, Tennessee lacked the depth and talent to contend in the conference. In 2014, it was one of the youngest teams in the country with one of the most difficult schedules. Fans had to be patient, Jones said. But the Vols are already showing major signs of growth two years into the Jones era. Their six wins this season were the program’s most since 2010, and Friday marked an important milestone for Jones: his first bowl win at Tennessee.
Coaches can stress the importance of rebuilding for a while, but at some point fans and schools expect results. Tennessee missed out on bowl eligibility last November when Vanderbilt scored a touchdown with 16 seconds left to beat the Vols in Knoxville. That meant more waiting for results in Knoxville. This year, however, Jones finally got a bowl win that fans can see.
Given the wide-open race in the SEC East this fall, it’s easy to see why many are high on Tennessee’s chance in the division in 2015. The Vols are set to return 18 starters. Many of those players are already major contributors, like Dobbs and freshman running back Jalen Hurd and freshman defensive end Derrick Barnett. Putting those players through a month’s worth of bowl practice is key, as well. That’s a luxury Tennessee hasn’t had in a long time.
The Vols still have a way to go, of course. They only beat one SEC team (South Carolina) with a winning record this year. But the pieces of the puzzle are slowly coming together for Jones and his coaching staff. On Friday, we saw the biggest proof of their process to date.