Friday January 1st, 2016

Tennessee entered the season with high expectations of becoming the best team in the SEC East. As the No. 23 Volunteers concluded their season with a 45–6 drubbing of No. 13 Northwestern in the Outback Bowl, they can confidently say they accomplished that mission—it just didn’t include a division title.

While Florida, which won the SEC East, floundered against Michigan in the Citrus Bowl for its third straight loss and sixth straight shaky performance, Tennessee rolled to its sixth straight victory. The Volunteers finish the season 9–4, with two of those losses coming in tight games against College Football Playoff participants (Alabama and Oklahoma) and the other two coming by a combined five points.

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The lack of a berth in the SEC title game makes this season not the big leap forward Tennessee fans had hoped for, but it was still a sizeable step in the right direction. It won’t be comforting to remember that the Volunteers were one fourth-and-14 stop or one narrowly missed 55-yard field goal away from beating Florida and winning the division, but that shows just how close they were to a big breakthrough. And perhaps the narrow losses in season-defining games were simply the tough lesson Tennessee had to go through to learn how to win those games in the future.

It’s easy to get too caught up in jaw-dropping bowl performances and let expectations for the next season get carried away. That’s part of what led to the predictions that the Volunteers were SEC title contenders this year, as Tennessee pummeled Iowa 45–28 in the TaxSlayer Bowl last year. The same is doable this year given the beatdown the Vols put on Northwestern on Friday. Tennessee forced four interceptions, held the Wildcats to 3.75 yards per play and wore Northwestern’s normally stout defense down with power in the trenches to rack up 226 yards rushing. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs threw for 166 yards with two touchdowns on the ground, running back Jalen Hurd picked up 130 yard rushing and Northwestern never scored after a second-quarter touchcdown drive.

But the Volunteers’ high hopes have much more support than one pasting of a clearly overmatched opponent, even a ranked one like the Wildcats. With the way Tennessee played the final six games of the season, Will Grier’s transfer from Florida and a coaching change at Georgia, believing the Volunteers can win their division next year wouldn't be merely a product of bowl hype. That may be a year later than some would have liked, but it’s a tribute to the progress that was made this season.

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