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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Tennessee fans stand during the national anthem before the Orange and White spring football game on April 13 Neyland Stadium.

OK, being bowl eligible for the first time in three years is clearly a step in the right direction for University of Tennessee football.

Clinching that reward with Saturday night's 24-20 victory at Missouri likely does more than send the Big Orange Nation to Florida for New Year's Day, where UT's massive fan base surely will add to the Volunteers' attractiveness to wind up in either the Outback Bowl in Tampa on Jan. 1 or the TaxSlayer Bowl in Jacksonville a day later.

But what it really does in the eyes of second-year head coach Jeremy Pruitt and his staff is hand those coaches 15 extra practice days to prepare for whatever bowl ultimately invites them, those extra practices a gift that should keep on giving into the 2020 season.

And judging by Pruitt's comments after the Mizzou win, next year is already on his mind, as perhaps it should be.

"Our program is headed in the right direction," he said. "We feel like our guys are bought in. Our kids love to go to work. They're a fun group to be around."

He also said, "It will be nice to play with 85 scholarships like everybody else in the league next year."

And this: "This (season) didn't start out the way we would have liked. But these guys stuck together. Hard to do that in this day and time. All the noise and clutter. It says a lot about the future of our program."

Indeed it does, for is any program in the Southeastern Conference certain to be noticeably better this time next year than the Vols, winners of four straight games (three of them within the league) heading into Saturday's regular-season finale against visiting Vanderbilt?

Yes, Alabama will continue to be Alabama, with or without Tua Tagovailoa, who is almost certain to declare for the NFL draft.

Nor do Florida, Georgia or LSU figure to fall off much, though the Bulldogs and Bayou Bengals figure to be breaking in new quarterbacks.

But look at UT, once 1-4 for the season, and argue that the Vols can't further shock the world a year from now, especially if quarterback Jarrett Gurantano — he of the 415 passing yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions against Missouri — decides to return for his senior season.

Talk about ignoring the noise and clutter.

When Guarantano went rogue on the goal line at Alabama and ignored a play that probably would have scored to audible into a play that ended up with him fumbling the ball into the end zone and the Tide returning it 100 yards for a score to ice the game, almost every member of the Big Orange Nation and a goodly number of former UT players were calling for his head. They wanted him kicked off the team or worse. In a few troubling cases, much worse.

Talk about ignoring the noise and clutter.

The Vols have won four straight since that loss, largely on the strength of Guarantano's gritty performances, including a couple played with a broken bone in his non-throwing hand.

For a long time the rumor has been that Guarantano would take his redshirt senior season elsewhere, as would be his right. But given how strong he's been of late, would that necessarily be the best thing for the program? With the Vols losing standout receivers Marquez Callaway and Jauan Jennings to graduation, won't Guarantano become even more of an asset in providing senior experience to a largely unproven receiving corps?

Moreover, is the idea to bolt even on the Jersey Boy's radar?

"I'm a Tennessee Vol," Guarantano reportedly told the Tennessee media after Saturday's game. "I mean, I put my body on the line for the past three years. I put my mind, heart, soul into this, and I love Knoxville. I'm just thankful that we get the opportunity to get another two games going, and after this year, then next year we get on a little roll."

They're on a little roll now. As former UT coach Johnny Majors was so often fond of saying, "They always remember what you do in November."

Defeat Vanderbilt on Saturday for the first time since 2015 and the Vols will finish November with five wins in five tries for the best little roll the program has had since 2015, when UT closed out the regular season with five straight wins (four in November) before spanking Northwestern 45-6 in the Outback Bowl.

Injuries stopped the 2016 season from being special, the program fell apart in 2017 and Pruitt was brought aboard last year to stop the bleeding and start the healing.

One game from the close of his second regular season, he appears to be at least on schedule, if not ahead of it.

"We have everything we need to have success," Pruitt said. "We have a great culture. We have a very young team. They're hungry to improve every single day. If we do that, there will be a lot of good things happen down the road."

If he's right, that road could be a lot shorter than anyone dreamed following that 1-4 start, which certainly could make this a November the Big Orange Nation remembers forever.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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