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The Volunteer's head coach Butch Jones raises his arms while walking off the field to celebrate his team's 24-17 win over the Commodores in Nashville on Saturday, Nove. 29, 2014.

NASHVILLE - When it was all over but the locker room celebration Saturday evening, when the Pride of the Southland Marching Band had serenaded their Tennessee football heroes with everything from "Rocky Top" to the "Tennessee Waltz," when the Big Orange Nation's touching chants of "Eric Berry! Eric Berry!" - a salute to their former All-American and current NFL star who may have lymphoma - had begun to fade, when Vanderbilt's stadium had begun to sound at least a wee bit less like Neyland West, junior wideout Pig Howard was still beaming, his feet barely touching the plastic grass.

"This means a lot," Howard said of the Volunteers' 24-17 win over the Commodores, a win to make the UT program bowl-eligible for the first time since 2009.

"We wanted to do this for the fans, for the program. It's bigger than us."

It's hard to overstate how big this is for a program that's gone to 49 bowl games previous to this, tied with Georgia and Southern Cal for the fourth most in history. Now that figure climbs to an even 50 for Team 118.

"This is our (fourth-year) seniors' first bowl game," beamed second-year head coach Butch Jones. "This gets us much closer to where we want to be. According to some experts, we were supposed to win two to four games all year."

That was the kind of statement any Truth Police might flag if this was a political campaign instead of an athletic one. It would be hard to find anyone who predicted only two wins for the Vols. Most guessed they'd fall somewhere from five t seven victories, which is exactly where they stand today, 6-6 overall and 3-5 within the SEC.

And where this will land them come late December is anyone's guess for another week. Could be back to Tennessee's state capital for the Music Bowl on Dec. 30. Could be the Liberty Bowl the day before that. Could be the Independence Bowl on Dec. 27.

Doesn't really matter. The Vols are bowling. Again.

And with a surprising amount of maturity if you listen to freshman defensive lineman Derek Barnett, who said, "We said all week we weren't going to talk. We were going to let the scoreboard talk for us."

There were lots of keys to that scoreboard talking about how the Vols beat Vanderbilt for the first time in three years. There was senior tailback Marlin Lane ably replacing the injured Jalen Hurd. There was sophomore quarterback Josh Dobbs, he of the two rushing scores and two interceptions. There was the defense that often bent but rarely broke, as has been the case most of this season when it hasn't been forced to stay on the field for most of the game.

Said Jones in defense of Dobbs: "What did Josh do well? He found a way to win the football game."

There's an emotional component to this for the fans. There's now an extra month to live and breathe the current season, to consider a bowl trip for a family holiday excursion, not to mention the increase in Big Orange merchandise that's likely to be sold because of this bowl berth.

After all, when the solid majority of the officially sold-out crowd of 40,350 was dressed in pale orange, there's no question that the fan base still strongly believes in Jones's brick-by-brick mantra.

And as the coach noted in his postgame remarks, "This is a big brick."

But the biggest brick goes both to the players and for the program.

Jones running off the field, pumping his fist toward the crowd before being hugged by UT athletic director Dave Hart wasn't just for show. Neither were the tears streaming down the face of redshirt junior offensive tackle Kyler Kerbyson, a graduate of Knoxville Catholic.

A snapshot to show just how much there remains a little kid, full of wonder and joy, in all these men, young and old: Defensive backs coach Willie Martinez spied senior defensive lineman Jordan Williams as the team slowly left the field. He pulled him close, the coach's hands against the player's ears and said, "I'm so happy for you."

To which Williams replied, "It's real, Coach. It's real."

There are those who say it will only be real when the Vols are again beating Alabama and Florida and Georgia on a regular basis, the way they did in their 1990s glory days, rather than a seven-point victory over a Vandy squad that failed to beat a single SEC team all year.

But after four straight losing seasons, after three years without a bowl bid, baby steps are sometimes necessary.

"We just wanted to build a foundation for this program," said senior lineman Jacob Gilliam, who played so much of the year with a torn ACL in his right knee. "This was why I did this. I was determined to help us get back to a bowl."

Or as redshirt junior linebacker Curt Maggitt said, his face aglow despite limping to the bus: "For the younger guys, you want them to start off the right way. This is the right way -- going to a bowl game."

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com

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