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UT running back Marlin Lane (15) makes his way past Vandy defenders at the Commodore's home field in Nashville on Saturday, Nov. 29, 2014. The Volunteers won over the Commodores with a final sore of 24-17.

NASHVILLE - It's a very long walk all the way across the field from the visitors' locker room at Vanderbilt Stadium to where the team bus waits after games.

For the Tennessee Volunteers, it was a far different experience Saturday night than it was here two years ago.

It was hardly easy, and it likely had the thousands of fans in the stands and elsewhere nervous and anxious, but Tennessee did what it needed to do.

The Vols are going bowling.

"Even it though it wasn't pretty, it's a win, and a win's a win," quarterback Josh Dobbs said after Tennessee edged Vanderbilt 24-17 to clinch the program's first bowl trip since 2010.

"We got to (win) number six, and that was our goal."

The Vols (6-6, 3-5 SEC) were one of five power-five conferences teams to have missed out on a postseason game in each of the last three seasons, sharing the list with Kentucky, Kansas, Colorado and Indiana.

Now Tennessee can ponder where it'll be spending a week in December.

The Liberty Bowl in Memphis seems a likely destination, but the Birmingham Bowl or perhaps a return trip to Nashville for the Music City Bowl are other possibilities.

Based on how Tennessee celebrated a win it often used to take for granted, the Vols don't care where they're going.

"It's a genuine care factor all across the board," said linebacker Curt Maggitt, one of the team's primary leaders. "Coaches care about players. Players care about coaches. Players care about players. That's a great win for the program."

Vanderbilt (3-9, 0-8) actually finished with a 272-262 yards edge in total offense, as the SEC's worst offense drove 88 and 71 yards for its two touchdowns and turned a Dobbs interception into a field goal.

The Vols lost top rusher Jalen Hurd in the first quarter and huffed and puffed its way to 17 points of its own, with cornerback Cam Sutton returning a punt 76 yards to open the scoring.

"It wasn't pretty," second-year Tennessee coach Butch Jones said, "but we found a way to get it done."

Making a bowl was his team's primary objective entering the season, and a team relying heavily on freshmen, lacking depth across its roster and facing a daunting schedule managed to accomplish it.

"We had the mentality we weren't doing to be denied," Sutton said. "We were working really hard to get that sixth win. We all wanted it really bad. We had the mentality of just not letting each other down."

The Vols were 3-5 after losses to Florida, Ole Miss and Alabama marred October but won three of their last four games to get to the six-win plateau.

It's a nice ending for Tennessee's senior class and a building block for the freshman and sophomores that form the backbone of a program that believes it's heading in the right direction.

"Every year we haven't met the expectations of what Tennessee is supposed to be," said senior cornerback Justin Coleman, who had one of the Vols' three interceptions. "To finally make it here as a senior, it shows the freshmen what the expectation really is. It's going to be a great experience to experience a bowl."

Tennessee needed its defense to come up big often Saturday. The Vols got interceptions from Coleman and safeties Brian Randolph and Todd Kelly -- the freshman made an impressive toe-tapping grab along the sideline of a tipped pass -- in timely situations. Linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin had a crucial stop on a late third-and-1.

"We let a few slip away from us, but we learned from those mistakes," freshman defensive end Derek Barnett said. "Even though we lost a few games that were close, it's helped us understand we have to critical on ever mistake.

"I think every loss helped us, honestly. It's a bad feeling, but it helps us in the long run."

After stopping Vanderbilt's last-minute drive on fourth down, Tennessee players celebrated with the band and its many fans in the stadium and posed for a team picture with Jones, the joy of what they accomplished as evident as ever.

"It continues that positive momentum, that positive energy," Jones said. "It rewards everyone for their resiliency. It sets the temperament for our football program.

"It's just one step closer to where we want to get as we continue to build this football program. We still have a long way to go, but I'm proud of everyone, because it took a lot of effort."

The effort ended in a reward.

"It was a rocky season," Maggitt said. "We lost a game by one. We lost another game by two or three. It's been a lot going on this season and a lot going in this game, particularly, too.

"For our guys to stick through it and show maturity and push through it and get this win, it shows we're getting this program in the right steps."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.

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