The Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl was not the preseason goal for Tennessee. But Friday's 38-24 win over Nebraska served as the perfect exclamation point to an up and down season.
Despite injuries, defections and criticism these Vols kept battling and showed their resiliency in a third straight bowl win over a Big Ten team.
"After all we've been through, we ended the season with a bang," Tennssee defensive back Todd Kelly, Jr. said. "And the seniors get to live with a win like this, it just shows how special this team is."
No player better illustrates that than senior quarterback Josh Dobbs. Plagued by inconsistency throughought his productive career, Dobbs delivered a virtuoso performance in his finale, piling up 409 total yards and four touchdowns against the Cornhuskers, including a Music City Bowl record three TD's on the ground.
"It's been a heckuva ride," Dobbs said. "I've had my share of adversity and I've had my share of success during my time at Tennessee. Both are really going to help me throughout the rest of my life, whether it's in the NFL or doing something else."
The day also brought what figures to be the final highlight of the stellar Tennessee career of Derek Barnett. The All-American Defensive End recorded his 33rd career sack late in the fourth quarter, passing Reggie White for the most sacks in Tennessee history.
"It was special," Barnett said. "My family and friends were here, but it was even more special to do it with my teammates (who mobbed him after the sack). It was rewarding to finish with a win."
Those two stars, as much as anybody, are responsible for Tennessee football returning to the national stage, even if this season didn't live up to expectations.
"These individuals have set the standard for many years to come," Tennessee head coach Butch Jones said flanked by Barnett and Dobbs at the postgame podium.
The Vols have won nine games in back to back seasons, and have won three consecutive bowl games for the first time since 1994-1996. That may not be the SEC title or playoff berth some envisioned at the beginning of the season, but it's progress for a program that was floundering when Jones took over.
And for the often-criticized Jones, the two stars offered their verbal support after the game with positive endorsements on the current state of the program.
"I think the future is very bright," Dobbs said. "(The underclassmen) understand what to do, how to take the reigns, how to work hard, continue to grow, treat each practice as a game and make the most of each rep. I'm excited to see what the future holds for University of Tennessee football."
If the Vols are able to take the next step and become a championship-level program under Jones it will be because of the foundation that guys like Barnett and Dobbs have laid over their time on campus.
The Music City Bowl wasn't their goal for this season, but it was a fitting sendoff for two stars that put Tennessee back on the map nationally.
"We talked about (during recruiting) having them return Tennessee football to it's rightful place," Jones said. "And these players have done that."