>>Associated Press


KNOXVILLE, Tenn.  — Tennessee is getting closer to a bowl bid that has eluded the program since the members of its heralded freshman class were still in ninth grade.

After pulling off one of the greatest comebacks in school history, Tennessee enters its off week with a bowl invitation well within reach. Tennessee (4-5, 1-4 Southeastern Conference) hosts Kentucky (5-4, 2-4) and Missouri (7-2, 4-1) before closing the regular season at Vanderbilt (3-6, 0-6). The Volunteers can become bowl eligible by winning two of those three games.

“That was our goal coming into the season, and it’s definitely right in front of us,” said sophomore quarterback Joshua Dobbs. “We’ve just got to keep plugging, keep working hard and we’ll get there.”

After erasing a 14-point deficit in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter to beat South Carolina 45-42 in overtime last week, the Vols have reason to feel confident.

“I don’t think people truly understand what this team accomplished Saturday night, with only nine individuals on the 70-person travel squad who had ever (played at) South Carolina before, playing an inordinate amount of freshmen and them stepping up in critical moments in critical situations and making plays,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said.

The next step in Tennessee’s growth process is to get to the postseason.

A bowl bid would be a new experience for a team that’s grown accustomed to staying home for the holidays. Nobody on Tennessee’s roster has played in a bowl game. Tennessee’s last bowl appearance was a 30-27 overtime loss to North Carolina in the 2010 Music City Bowl.

“Everybody knows that’s the main goal — getting to a bowl game,” said senior linebacker A.J. Johnson. “But at the same time, you’ve got to take each week at a time. We take each week at a time and get that win, we’re going to get to a bowl game.

“We’re going to go to a bowl game. That’s the last thing we’re worried about. We’re going to make it to a bowl game.”

A bowl game would serve as more than a reward for a program that has endured plenty of frustration in recent years. The extra practices that come along with a bowl appearance could prove particularly helpful for a team relying heavily on underclassmen.

Tennessee has played 23 true freshmen this season, the most of any Football Bowl Subdivision program. Now that quarterback Justin Worley is about to undergo season-ending shoulder surgery, Tennessee’s only remaining senior starters are Johnson, punter Matt Darr, offensive tackle Jacob Gilliam, cornerback Justin Coleman and defensive tackle Jordan Williams.

“It really adds almost the equivalent of another spring ball for these individuals,” Jones said. “And the other thing is it lets your football team be together, and this is a very, very close-knit football team.”

The Vols have looked completely different since the emergence of Dobbs, who made his first start of the season last week in place of an injured Worley.

Against South Carolina, Dobbs became the first Tennessee player to pass for 300 yards and rush for 100 yards in the same game. He ran for a touchdown and threw a touchdown pass in the last 1:50 of regulation. Never before had Tennessee won a game in which it trailed by at least 14 points with less than five minutes left in the fourth quarter.

Now the Vols want to close out the season as well as they closed out that game.

“Let’s not get too caught up with that win,” said junior receiver Alton “Pig” Howard. “We’ve still got a job we need to do.”


-Published by Andrew Thompson