By Steve Williams

Real Tennessee football fans don’t get caught up in all the bowl hype, or at least they shouldn’t.

The truth of the matter is the Vols haven’t played in a major bowl game since Jan. 1, 2005, when Tennessee, led by Rick Clausen, pummeled Texas A&M 38-7 in the Cotton Bowl.

It used to be that if you were playing on New Year’s Day, you were playing in a big-time bowl game, like the Rose, Cotton, Sugar or Orange bowls. But that’s not the case anymore.

For example, upcoming games on Jan. 1, 2016 will include the Outback and Citrus bowls. Tennessee, of course, will be in the Outback Bowl against Northwestern at noon on New Year’s Day. (Fans of the four playoff semifinal games the night before and New Year’s Eve party goers may or may not care or even be up in time to see the kickoff of the Vols’ and Wildcats’ matchup).

Don’t get me wrong. After three years of being on the outside looking in, it’s nice to see your favorite team going bowling for the second year in a row. But let’s keep it real. If the Vols were one of the four teams in the playoffs on New Year’s Eve, now that would have been a big deal.

A coach’s decision or a play here or there, and Tennessee could have been in the Final Four. The Vols were that close.

Since the 2005 romp past A&M, the Vols have played in two Outback Bowls (with No. 3 this Friday), a Chick-fil-A Bowl, the Music City Bowl and the TaxSlayer Bowl, plus there were the three years of being left at home.

These days, your program is really struggling if it can’t qualify for a bowl game. This year a team could make it with a below .500 won-loss record. Nebraska and Minnesota got in with 5-7 marks. Give Missouri a hand for saying no thank you.

The NCAA needs to clean up this bowl mess. It needs to fix it, so it’s an honor to qualify for a bowl like it used to be. In my book, 6-6 records aren’t good enough either. Even a 7-5 mark is borderline. There just shouldn’t be 40 bowl games.

There were only eight bowl games in the 1950s and ‘60s, with a slight increase to 11 bowls by 1970. The growth reached 15 bowls in 1980, 19 in 1990, 25 in 2000 and 35 by 2010.

UT played in its first bowl game ever on Jan. 2, 1939, posting a 17-0 win over Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. There were only five bowl games at that time – the Rose, Sugar, Cotton, Orange and Sun.

The following two years saw the Vols play in two of the other bowls – losing to Southern Cal 14-0 in the 1940 Rose Bowl and falling to Boston College 19-13 in the 1941 Sugar Bowl. Tennessee’s first appearance in the Cotton Bowl came in 1951 when the Vols notched a 20-14 victory over Texas.

Tennessee stands No. 3 in the nation in most bowl games played (50). That ranking puts them in high cotton. The Vols’ overall record is 26-24.

UT’s greatest stretch of post-season success occurred from the 1985 season through the 1998 campaign when it compiled a 10-3 record. It started with arguably its greatest and most impressive bowl win ever – a 35-7 rout of the Miami Hurricanes in the Sugar Bowl and ended with the 23-16 BCS national championship win over Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl.

The Vols’ best bowl run also included a 48-28 win over this year’s bowl foe in the 1997 Citrus Bowl.

Northwestern’s bowl resume, in fact, pales in comparison to Tennessee’s. The Wildcats defeated California 20-14 in the 1948 Rose Bowl – their first bowl game – but didn’t go bowling again until 1995.

It’s no wonder that growing up I remember Northwestern as a cellar dweller in the Big 10.

The Wildcats lost nine straight bowl games before finally defeating Mississippi State 34-20 in the 2012 Gator Bowl. That made them 2-9 in bowl games and the upcoming contest with the Vols will be their first bowl outing since the win over State.

Northwestern has one of its best teams in school history this season. The Wildcats are 10-2 and were No. 13 in the final college playoff rankings.

Most Tennessee fans seem to be pleased with the progress Butch Jones has made with the program in his first three seasons.

Real Tennessee fans, however, won’t be totally satisfied until the Vols can land berths in major bowl games and win. They’re hoping that will start in 2016. A win over Northwestern will be no more than an appetizer.