By Steve Williams

Tennessee’s football team has finished 5-7 three seasons in a row now, but there’s a world of difference in this year’s record compared to the other two.

A difference that can easily be seen just by looking at the Vols’ last three games against Kentucky.

In 2011, Tennessee lost 10-7 in Lexington, and after the game, accusations were made that some of the Vols weren’t giving their all for Tennessee because they really had no desire to win and become eligible for a lower-tier bowl game.

UT beat Kentucky 37-17 in the final game of the 2012 campaign, but the sad state of its program was revealed by just looking at who was in charge on the Tennessee sidelines that day and who was absent. Derek Dooley declined to coach the season finale after being told he would not be retained as head coach, following an embarrassing 41-18 defeat at Vanderbilt the preceding week. Interim coach Jim Chaney guided the Vols to victory.

Even though the Vols didn’t have a bowl to play for in Lexington this season, you couldn’t tell it by their performance. First-year head coach Butch Jones told his team it needed to finish “1-0” and they responded with a solid effort that produced a 27-14 win over the Wildcats.

“I thought our kids really showed up and played winning football,” said Coach Jones right off the bat in his post-game comments.

Some Vols even went out with a bang and turned in the best games of their UT career.

Senior defensive lineman Corey Miller broke the 30-year old sack record held by Reggie White with 4.5 sacks. He had seven tackles and also forced a fumble and was named the NCAA National Defensive Player of the Week.

Miller and offensive right tackle Ja’Wuan James were named SEC Players of the Week. James set a UT record for most career starts (49) by an offensive lineman.

James and his veteran teammates up front helped the Vols rush for 218 yards on a cold November night to finish the season with 2,261 yards on the ground – the most by a Tennessee team since 2004 – and provided running room to push senior Rajion Neal over the 1,000-yard mark (1,124 yards to be exact).

Looking at the final rushing total, maybe this offensive line was better than we thought.

Others also sparkled in the win over UK. If senior punter Michael Palardy wasn’t rolling one out of bounds at the 1, he was sticking a kick inside the 5 like a golfer would stick a shot near the cup. One of his punts traveled over 40 yards and barely moved when it landed. He’s been doing that pretty much all season.

True freshman quarterback Joshua Dobbs played much better, showing us he should be in the thick of the QB derby this spring.

And Bearden High product Devrin Young stood out as a kick returner and receiver. “I thought Devrin played his best football game,” said Jones. “It was great to see and that should build a lot of confidence with him as we continue to move forward.”

Since the season finale, Miller has been selected to play in the College All Star Bowl on February 14 and senior right guard Zach Fulton has become the 43rd Vol to be named to play in the East-West Shrine Game on January 18.

Butch saluted the seniors before starting on Team 118.

“They mean so much to our football program and they’ve been through a lot (42 coaches including strength coaches in five years),” he pointed out. “They’ve been remarkable in terms of buying in and doing everything we’ve asked of them. To get this victory was very special to them.”

One of those seniors was defensive tackle Daniel Hood, who played his high school ball at Knoxville Catholic.

“I have to smile,” said Hood, as he looked back on a trying five years. “I feel like we accomplished all of our goals except for the bowl game. I feel really proud to leave the program as it is in Coach Jones’ hands.”

Butch wasted no time turning the page to the next chapter of UT football. Here’s the comment that really got my attention:

“I want to continue to stay positive and move forward, but it’s expected that we go to bowl games from here on out.”

The Vols have their orders. There won’t be a fourth 5-7 season in a row.