Tennessee discovered this year just how challenging it is to take that final step into championship contention.
The Volunteers hope the lessons learned through a turbulent season will make them better equipped to make that jump next year.
After opening the season ninth in the country and winning its first five games, Tennessee struggled down the stretch amid injuries, defections and unexpected losses at South Carolina and Vanderbilt . The Vols (9-4) dropped four of their last seven games but rebounded Friday to defeat Nebraska 38-24 in the Music City Bowl .
''At the end of the day, we ended our season with a bang,'' Tennessee safety Todd Kelly Jr. said.
Tennessee ended up with the same 9-4 record it posted last year after showing steady progress in in the first few years of Butch Jones' coaching tenure. The Vols had gone 5-7 in 2013 and 7-6 in 2014 before last year's 9-4 finish.
Injuries decimated Tennessee at defensive tackle and forced the Vols to use several different starting combinations on the offensive line and in the secondary. Senior linebacker and captain Jalen Reeves-Maybin was one of several players lost to season-ending injuries on a defense that slumped late in the regular season. The offense dealt with the unexpected midseason departure of running back Jalen Hurd .
Yet the Vols still won a bowl game for the third straight year. This program hadn't won three consecutive bowl games since 1994-96.
''If I could pick one word to describe (this team), it would be `resiliency,' due to the injuries we battled all year, some tough losses, some big wins in the last second,'' senior defensive end LaTroy Lewis said. ''We never wavered. Mentally, for most teams it would be an up-and-down, up-and-down. I honestly could say we had a group of guys that stuck with each other and really came together as a family down the stretch.''
Although they didn't deliver on preseason projections that they'd win the Southeastern Conference East Division title, the Vols did achieve some personal milestones.
Derek Barnett posted his 33rd career sack Friday to break Reggie White's school record .
Joshua Dobbs threw for 2,946 yards and 27 touchdowns in his senior season while also rushing for a team-high 831 yards and 12 more scores. His 3,777 yards of total offense were just 12 shy of the single-season school record set by Peyton Manning in 1997.
Josh Malone caught 50 passes for 972 yards and 11 touchdowns this year after scoring a total of three times in his first two seasons.
All three of those guys might have played their last game for the Vols, an indication of the different look Tennessee could have next year. Dobbs has completed his eligibility. Barnett, rated as a likely first-round pick in many mock drafts, must determine whether to return for his senior year or turn pro. Malone and junior running back Alvin Kamara also are considering whether to enter the draft.
In at least one of these cases, the decision may have already been made. The VaynerSports agency tweeted that it has signed Kamara, a post that Kamara retweeted. Kamara also sent out a separate tweet saying that ''It's been a great 2 years on Rocky Top! I love you all and appreciate the many memories. Go Vols!!''
As he prepares to step away, Dobbs believes the program is in good hands.
''We know what it's like to go 5-7 and not go to a bowl game and be in there Monday morning after the last game doing workouts and just wanting to go home,'' Dobbs said. ''So we have felt that and so we've instilled that in (the underclassmen) so they understand what to do, how to take the reins, how to work hard, how to continue to grow. Approach each practice as if it's a game and make the most of each rep.
''So I'm definitely excited to see what the future hold for the University of Tennessee football program.''
AP Sports Writer Teresa Walker and freelance writer Chip Cirillo in Nashville, Tennessee, contributed to this report.
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