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Missouri tailback Russell Hansbrough (32) is tackled by Tennessee defensive end Derek Barnett (9) in the first quarter of a November game in Knoxville.

KNOXVILLE -- A win would give this season a nice ending.

It would be a good way to start the next one, too.

The Tennessee Volunteers travel to Jacksonville today to resume their preparations for Friday's TaxSlayer Bowl against Iowa. The game carries great significance for the Vols program and could provide a springboard into an offseason that will lead into a year of elevated expectations.

"I think it'd just give us a bunch of momentum going into the offseason," said defensive end Derek Barnett, one of a handful of freshmen who played big parts in getting the Vols into the program's first bowl in four years.

Of course, bowl success doesn't always equal an uptick in wins the following season, and what happens Friday afternoon at EverBank Field against the Hawkeyes probably won't have any bearing on the expectations heading into 2015 or the results during Butch Jones's third season as Tennessee's coach.

The Vols will return nearly all of their key contributors for next season, and while their preparations the past few weeks have been geared toward this one game, one couldn't blame Tennessee's coaches and players for having next season and the long-term impact of the extra practices in the back of their minds this month.

"I'm just trying to improve right now -- improve and get better for the bowl game and reaching our goal of having a winning season and having a bowl championship," quarterback Josh Dobbs said. "That's my goal right now. I'm focused on that. Then after that, I'll focus on the next step, but right now we're focused on the bowl game."

The to-do list for Tennessee to get the program back among the SEC contenders continues to have a number of unchecked items.

The Vols still are just 1-26 against ranked teams in the last five seasons and haven't defeated a ranked team on the road since beating Georgia in Athens in 2006.

The combined losing streak to Florida, Alabama and Georgia -- Tennessee's three most important rivals -- sits at 23 games, and the Vols haven't beaten one of those teams since 2009.

Though only two of Tennessee's five SEC wins under Jones came against teams that finished 6-6 or better, the Vols delivered an improved product on the field this season and continue to recruit at an elite level.

After being blown out of four games last season -- the Vols lost to Oregon, Alabama, Auburn and Missouri by 28 or more points -- Tennessee was competitive in nearly every game this season, and three of the six losses, to SEC East rivals Georgia, Florida and Missouri, came by a combined 14 points.

Tennessee jumped nearly 50 spots (84th to 36th) in the national rankings of total defense, and despite losing all of an offensive line that produced NFL rookie starters, the Vols gained more yards and put up more points than they did in 2013.

"We've always talked about the process and making progress," offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said. "You look at the progress we've made, and sometimes it's not apparent to the naked eye. When you look at the body of work and the accumulation of what we've been able to accomplish with our tempo, with our production (you see progress).

"Our offense scored 66 more points this year than it did last year. We were able to run 100 more plays this year than we did last year. We earned 26 more first downs. We threw nine more touchdowns and four less interceptions. Our red-zone percentage improved 15 percent over last year.

"It's just part of the process, and all that being said, we were able to accomplish that while starting seven different freshmen who accounted for 44 different starts. That's more than twice as many as any other offense in the conference. The progress is there. It's evident.

"When you look closely, you can tell that this team, this offense is making progress. Now it's just the matter of taking the next step, of some of those close games that we could have and should have won, now winning those ballgames. This bowl allows us to get a step closer to that."

Beating Iowa would be Tennessee's first bowl victory since the 2007 season and would give the Vols the program's first winning season since 2007.

"It's very important," defensive back Justin Coleman said. "Nobody likes losing. You get that seventh win, that's something that hasn't happened in a long time. That's just something Tennessee really needs to get back on top."

Winning on Friday may add to the perception that the Vols are ready to contend in the wide-open SEC East in 2015, but before they can turn their focus to the offseason, there's one more game left to play this season.

"We're one step closer where Rocky Top belongs, and that's at the top, so we're doing all we can to get ourselves there," freshman tight end Ethan Wolf said.

"We don't really like to look toward next season, and I'm sure everybody does know that we have a lot of guys returning, but right now we're focused on the bowl game and getting as many reps and perfecting our technique and our brand and our style of play to go out there and win."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.

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