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Tennessee defensive back Justin Coleman (27) intercepts a pass in the end zone against Vanderbilt in the second quarter of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 29, 2014, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

NASHVILLE -- Justin Coleman had plenty of free time the past three Decembers.

Too much free time, the Tennessee defensive back would tell you.

He and the Volunteers will be a little busier this December, though.

For the first time in the careers of nearly every player on Tennessee's roster, there's a bowl game to play, meaning 15 practices after the semester ends and travel plans for the last week of the month, depending on the destination.

It's a welcome change for Coleman and his teammates.

"It's going to be kind of weird, because I remember going home and having some of my friends going to a bowl game," the senior said after notching his team-leading fourth interception in Tennessee's 24-17 win at Vanderbilt on Saturday.

"They'd come home for a couple days, then leave, and I'd feel left out like, 'Why are we not going to a bowl game?' Going to a bowl game's going to be very fun."

The Vols won't find out where they're going until next Sunday after the season's final week wraps up, when the College Football Playoff semifinals and the other four New Year's Day bowl games are set.

From there, the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl will have the first pick of the remaining SEC teams, and the league will place teams in a pool of six games, with the Birmingham and Independence Bowls then making their selections.

Given its proximity to Nashville, Memphis and Charlotte and how well Tennessee would do in terms of ticket sales and fan travel, the Music City, Liberty and Belks Bowls seem the most likely destinations.

It will be the 50th bowl game in Tennessee's history, but it will be just the program's third postseason game in the last seven seasons since the Vols beat Wisconsin 21-17 win in the Outback Bowl to cap the 2007 season.

The significance of the accomplishment was apparent in how the Vols celebrated Saturday's sloppy, shaky victory, including an impromptu team picture on the field and the belting of the fight song in the locker room after the game.

"You could see it in their faces when we got to the locker room," quarterback Josh Dobbs said. "Everyone was just overjoyed. It's something that they haven't experienced, I haven't experienced -- luckily I'm younger -- but definitely for the seniors to make a bowl game, I know it meant everything to them. They definitely showed it."

Second-year coach Butch Jones called the extra practices he and his staff will get with their young team "invaluable," and that truly may be the biggest reason making a bowl game was important for a rebuilding program.

"We've had too much time off here in the past with not going to bowl games," Jones said. "You look at these kids, they'd go home over the holidays, and they'd have a month and 10 days off. It's really hard to build your strength levels up.

"For us to continue to be together and build our family environment, but also for them to develop individually will be extremely beneficial for our football program.

"I think (it's) the illustration of staying the course. We knew we went through a stretch at the beginning of the year, and we knew if we would just stay the course, not let all the clutter and outside distractions and just focus on the process every day of being a better football team, everything would take care of itself."

If Tennessee goes on to win its bowl game, the Vols would finish with a winning record for the first time since 2009.

That possibility turned into an uphill climb after Tennessee blew the game in a 10-9 loss to a bad Florida team and looked downright unrealistic after Ole Miss thumped the Vols 34-3 in mid-October, but Dobbs orchestrated an improbable comeback win at South Carolina that sparked the turnaround.

Dobbs, of course, downplayed his role in getting Tennessee from 3-5 to a busy December.

"I wouldn't say that for me personally. It's just an accomplishment that as a team we did it," he said. "As a team, we got to six wins. I know when I stepped in, we needed three more wins.We were able to accomplish that, get to six and now we're fighting for seven and a winning season.

"We have another chance to play football this year, so we're extremely excited about that."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.

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