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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Tennessee long snapper Riley Lovingood, shown before the 2018 spring game, is one of four fifth-year seniors on this year's roster.

KNOXVILLE — As 13 Tennessee seniors prepare to play their final game at Neyland Stadium with the program bowl eligible for the first time since 2016, it's worth noting that just three seasons ago the Volunteers were 5-0 and ranked ninth in the country after a last-second 34-31 win at Georgia.

It was just a couple of years ago the Vols were ranked 23rd entering a matchup at 24th-ranked Florida, a game they would lose 26-20 on a last-second touchdown pass. That same season, though, the Vols had their first eight-loss campaign in school history as well as their first winless slate of Southeastern Conference games, leading to one of the wildest coaching searches in recent history.

As fifth-year senior long snapper Riley Lovingood told the Times Free Press recently regarding his class, "We've experienced the highest of the highs and the lowest of the lows."

Before Tennessee (6-5, 4-3) hosts Vanderbilt (3-8, 1-7) at 4 p.m. Saturday, the seniors will go through the Vol Walk for the final time and they'll get one final chance to run through the 'T.' Then they'll have one final opportunity to compete on a field where they made memories such as the 38-31 win over No. 19 Georgia in 2015 — of Tennessee's four fifth-year seniors, only Jauan Jennings played that game; Lovingood, linebacker Landon Knoll and linebacker Darrell Taylor redshirted that year — and the 38-28 win over Florida in 2016, which ended an 11-game losing streak to the Gators.

"We know each other well, going through the grinder for five years like this," Lovingood said. "I feel like nothing affects us that comes our way — bad losses, media against us, fans against us or something. We know we've got to come closer as a team, got to keep fighting. That's just the way it goes. My freshman year, we lost to Oklahoma in double overtime, to Florida on a last-second kick, to Arkansas, and people thought the world was over in Knoxville.

"You learn the world's never over. No matter what the loss is, no matter how bad people say the team is or how bad the program is, it's never over. You can always keep fighting and come back. That's what we were telling guys this year. We have been through a lot, so to get this program back to a bowl game and hopefully an eight-win season says a lot about the fight in this program."

The home finale is big for the Vols for a multitude of reasons, none bigger than the fact the Commodores have won three straight in the series, the longest such streak since Vanderbilt went 5-0-1 from 1920 to '27.

The teams have been trending in opposite directions this season. Tennessee has won five of its past six since a 1-4 start, while Vanderbilt has only one win over a Power Five conference opponent (Missouri) and is 0-4 on the road with the losses coming by an average of 31.5 points.

"It's never good to lose, especially to an in-state rival, so being able to go out and have another day to compete and another year to play them, that's why you come to college — to play rivalry games," senior Marquez Callaway said. "They've beat us the past three times, so we're not looking back at it. We're trying to look forward to it, and it's going to be another opportunity to go out and show."

Both good and bad memories have strengthened this Tennessee senior class. Most of the team's top playmakers — Callaway, Jennings, Taylor, linebacker Daniel Bituli and safety Nigel Warrior — are in the group that has been through it all and wants to go out with a bang.

"It's the most important game because it's the game at hand," Jennings said. "It's the next game we have here. Last home game for us seniors, so it's going to be a lot of emotions flowing. This for us as seniors is the last game in Neyland, so we don't want to disappoint the fans that come here each and every Saturday that we have a game here.

"We're just ready to go out there and win for them."

Contact Gene Henley at ghenley@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3 or at Facebook.com/VolsUpdate.

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