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Tennessee linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin (34) raises his hands after stopping a run during the Vols' football game against the Missouri Tigers on Saturday at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville.
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Tennessee head coach Butch Jones shouts to field judge Blake Parks during the Vols' 29-21 loss to the Missouri Tigers on Nov. 22, 2014, at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville.

KNOXVILLE -- Most seasons, simply making a bowl game wouldn't be good enough for Tennessee.

After all, the Volunteers boast a football program with multiple national and Southeastern Conference titles, and they went 45-5 over a four-year span in mid-to-late 1990s.

It's a different story in 2014.

For Tennessee, a win at Vanderbilt on Saturday would mean a return to the postseason for the first time in four seasons and provide tangible evidence that second-year coach Butch Jones is making progress in getting the Vols back to a competitive level in the unforgiving SEC.

Jones was asked Monday if getting back to a bowl would serve as validation for him and his coaching staff.

"I don't look at it that way," he said. "I know we're headed in the right direction. I think everybody across the country, they know we're headed in the right direction. It's not validation or anything like that.

"The next game is very important. We're fighting for victory number six, and it's going to be a great challenge. Vanderbilt's going to play their best. We have to play our best.

"We don't need validation," Jones continued. "We know what's going on in our program. I think the validation is by the recruiting classes we're assembling, by the people we're bringing in here and by our style of play. We've come a long way in a very short period of time."

Tennessee's 49 bowl appearances are tied for the fourth most in college football with Georgia and Southern California, trailing only Alabama (61), Texas (52) and Nebraska (50).

It's another list, one that shows where the Vols have been recently, that's much more relevant.

Tennessee, Kansas, Colorado, Indiana and Kentucky are the only programs in the power-five conferences (SEC, ACC, Pac-12, Big 12 and Big Ten) that haven't made a bowl game the past three seasons.

"It'd definitely big for the program, just getting to win number six," Vols linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin said. "We're trying to focus on that right now and not look ahead to a bowl game. All eyes on Vanderbilt, and obviously they got us the last two years, but there's a lot of guys on our team who haven't been a part of that.

"A lot's on the line," he added, "That's when big players come up and step up and make plays. That's what I want to be: I want to be a playmaker, and this is a game to do it in."

The Vols have flopped in this situation before, most notably in 2011, when an overtime win against the Commodores on Eric Gordon's walk-off interception-return touchdown in overtime meant Tennessee had to win at 4-7 Kentucky to notch its sixth win. The Vols instead were lifeless in an embarrassing 10-7 defeat.

Last season, Vanderbilt handed Tennessee its seventh loss by driving the length of the field in the final minutes and scoring the winning touchdown with 16 seconds left.

The Vols probably feel they already should be bowl-eligible this season. They lost by only three points at Georgia in late September, laid an egg against a very beatable Florida team in early October and were in a three-point game with Missouri early in the fourth quarter last Saturday night.

"We've been going through adversity with losses that we think we should have won," cornerback Cam Sutton said. "Missouri was another game that we felt like a few plays here and there changed the outcome of the game. It's too late to go back and change that now. We've got another opportunity, a big opportunity, this weekend coming up."

Jones's first full recruiting class in 2014 was ranked in the top five nationally and featured a number of players who have contributed significantly this season, and the Vols appear to be following that up with another strong class, one that's currently ranked third by 247Sports, for 2015.

The Vols are just 1-12 against ranked teams under Jones, but it's clear they've been more competitive in those games this season compared to 2013.

Perception often is reality, and Tennessee accomplishing something it's not done in four years, even if going to a bowl game was once a given for the program, would signify progress.

"Definitely, I think so," Sutton said. "I think we're headed in the right direction now, even without football-wise. Academics, we're doing very well. We're bonded, we're family, even through all the adversity that we go through as a team and as a unit. Just going to a bowl game would be something added extra."

Said Jones: "We've got some special things going on here, and we just need to be patient and continue to build and build and build, and we're going to like our body of work."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.

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