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Tennessee produces first winning season since 2009 while relying heavily on freshmen

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Now that it has ended a string of four straight losing seasons, Tennessee believes it's ready to take the next step in its return to national relevance.

Tennessee's 45-28 victory over Iowa in Friday's TaxSlayer Bowl in Jacksonville, Florida, gave the Volunteers their first bowl victory since New Year's Day 2008 and capped a late-season surge in which they won four of their last five games. The Vols (7-6) posted their first winning season since 2009 while playing the most freshmen of any Football Bowl Subdivision program.

The performance should raise expectations for Tennessee as it heads into the 2015 season, particularly with the Southeastern Conference's Eastern Division in a state of uncertainty.

"It shows that we're here to compete, and you better watch out for us because we're coming," freshman running back Jalen Hurd said after rushing for 122 yards and two touchdowns against Iowa. "We're coming, for real."

Hurd arrived on campus amid plenty of fanfare as part of a freshman class ranked in the top five by multiple recruiting services. That group came of age during a season in which Tennessee encountered plenty of obstacles.

"I just spoke to the guys and told them it's been a roller coaster of a season," junior defensive end/linebacker Curt Maggitt said. "Injuries, a lot of adversity came about. I think that brought us a lot closer together. Our youth stepped up and matured a lot."

That adversity included a torn labrum that knocked out quarterback Justin Worley midway through the year and season-ending injuries to four different receivers. Late in the regular season, the Vols dealt with the suspensions of starting linebacker A.J. Johnson and defensive back Michael Williams, who were named as subjects of a rape investigation in which no arrests have been made and no charges have been filed thus far.

"We knew our resiliency and our perseverance would be challenged this year," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said.

PHOTO: Tennessee's LaTroy Lewis (4) kisses the trophy after the TaxSlayer Bowl NCAA college football game against Iowa on Friday, Jan. 2, 2015, in Jacksonville, Fla. Tennessee won 45-28. (AP Photo/The Florida Times-Union, Bob Self)
Tennessee's LaTroy Lewis (4) kisses the trophy after the TaxSlayer Bowl NCAA college football game against Iowa on Friday, Jan. 2, 2015, in Jacksonville, Fla. Tennessee won 45-28. (AP Photo/The Florida Times-Union, Bob Self)

Through it all, Tennessee kept working and got better as the season wore on. Offensive tackle Jacob Gilliam exemplified this team's tenacity, as he returned to action after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in the season opener and played in the bowl game with a club on his injured left hand.

"That will go down as one of the top three moments of my life, winning that bowl game for Tennessee, for myself and for all of my teammates," Gilliam said.

Gilliam, defensive tackle Jordan Williams, defensive back Justin Coleman and punter Matt Darr were Tennessee's only senior starters in the TaxSlayer Bowl. This was a team dominated by underclassmen.

Joshua Dobbs' late-season emergence solidified Tennessee's quarterback situation. Derek Barnett emerged as one of the nation's most promising young pass rushers by collecting 10 sacks and 20 ½ tackles for loss as a freshman. Hurd showed star potential while rushing for 899 yards.

Their taste of success late this season has left them hungry for more.

"I walked in the locker room a couple weeks ago, they already have a chart," Jones said. "There's a contest between (tight end) Ethan Wolf and Jalen Hurd, a number of guys about their off season lifting totals, what they're going to do."

That friendly offseason competition among teammates in the offseason could help Tennessee get more competitive with the SEC's top teams next year.

For all the progress Tennessee made this season, the Vols realize they still have to make additional strides on their path to SEC contention. They believe it's only a matter of time before they get there.

"Next year, we can make an even bigger step," Barnett said.

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