KNOXVILLE — The past two bowl games for Tennessee were about punctuating the end of a season of progress.
This year is very different.
Beating Nebraska in the Music City Bowl won't salvage a disappointing season for the Volunteers, and the game itself is just a small part of the big picture moving forward as fourth-year coach Butch Jones evaluates what went wrong this season and where his program now goes.
"I don't think I've ever been through a football season like this in terms of the amount of adversities week in and week out and the challenges week in and week out," Jones said Monday. "Our players, they've persevered. They've showed leadership, but I've never been through a season like this (with) the highs, the lows.
"That's why you have to take a consistent approach week in and week out, and that's why you have to sit back and take the emotion out. Obviously we did not finish the way we wanted to finish, and that's unacceptable in our program. I take responsibility for that as the leader of this program, but we have to do a better job of finishing."
Tennessee certainly had higher hopes than finishing 8-4 and staying in-state for its bowl game, and how the season transpired made it even more disappointing.
Losing at South Carolina cost the Vols the chance to win the SEC East, and when a potential Sugar Bowl bid presented a lifeline, Tennessee couldn't beat Vanderbilt.
An inconsistent, turnover-prone offense hit its stride just in time for an injury-ravaged defense to tumble off a cliff and allow more than 600 yards in each of three November SEC games.
"Before the season obviously everyone has their expectations and goals and everyone wants to win championships," quarterback Josh Dobbs said. "There's no sense in shying away from that. The key to that is you have to focus on each game.
"You can't look at the big picture. You have to focus on the small things and small details each practice and each game and take advantage of those opportunities. They'll all add up in the end."
Jones was mostly mum on specifics of how he'll address Tennessee's problems.
Asked as part of a two-part question how he needed to be a better coach, Jones answered the other part of the question, then pivoted to what the team needed to do better: Limit turnovers, force more and play more physical.
"I will thoroughly, thoroughly examine everything in our football program in moving forward," he said. "Every amount of time where I'm not recruiting or not in a home or not at a high school, I'm examining that and will continue to do that. That's a process.
"You have to take the emotion out. You have to look at how far you've come. Then you have to look at your deficiencies as a football team and a football program."
Jones said "competitive depth" is an area where improvement is needed via recruiting and better player development, as the rash of injuries, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, exposed those shortcomings.facebook
"We have to continue to recruit that depth," he added. "Our starting 22 could play with anybody in the country. I think we saw that starting out 5-0. I think we've had some role players really develop and some that need to develop more."
According to Jones, last season's team had to learn how to win and did so. He believes the lesson from this season is learning how to prepare on a daily basis to combat the other team's best shot. In other words, Jones thinks the Vols handled poorly the lofty expectations and life as the favorites.
"Every time you step on the field you have to play your best," Dobbs said, "because you're going to get the other team's best shot, so you can't take any opportunities for granted."
Tennessee's final opportunity this season will come against the Cornhuskers, and while a win would be a positive way to end the season, the die has been cast for the 2016 Vols.
"It's definitely not a disappointment," said defensive end LaTroy Lewis, who experienced losing seasons his first two years at Tennessee. "Eight wins on the season, that's a good year. I probably can sit here and talk to numerous friends playing around the country, and they would trade (for) our eight wins in a heartbeat.
"We have to really, really sit down and be proud of our accomplishments. To win eight games in the Southeastern Conference and the type of opponents we've played this year, it's really an accomplishment. I don't think we'll have a tough time getting up to play (in the bowl). We have guys that love football and are excited to play.
"I don't see that being a problem for us."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.