Stop me if you've heard this before. Tennessee falls short of expectations during the regular season but wins bowl game in impressive fashion to gain positive momentum heading into the offseason.
It happened two years ago, when a 6-6 Tennessee team surprised everybody by handling Iowa 45-28 in the TaxSlayer Bowl. Last year, the Volunteers lost four games by a combined 17 points, but all was forgiven after a dominant 45-6 win over Northwestern in the Outback Bowl. They quickly became the team to beat in the SEC East for 2016.
Tennessee didn't win the East in 2016, though. The Volunteers lost games to South Carolina and Vanderbilt down the stretch in what turned out to be another disappointing season.
But you'd never know it after the Volunteers beat Nebraska 38-24 in Friday’s Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl.
Senior quarterback Joshua Dobbs was sensational in what was his final game at Tennessee. Dobbs, who earned MVP honors, went 23-of-38 through the air for 291 yards and a touchdown but did most of his damage on the ground with 118 yards and a Music City Bowl-record three rushing touchdowns. He finished the season with 3,777 total yards of offense, just 18 yards shy of Peyton Manning's school record set in 1997.
Manning's record might have held up, but Reggie White's career sack record was broken by Derek Barnett on Friday. The junior defensive end wreaked havoc all game, but it wasn't until late in the fourth quarter when he got sack No. 33.
It didn’t help that Nebraska was playing without starting quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. and leading receiver Jordan Westerkamp, but backup quarterback Ryker Fyfe kept the Cornhuskers close with 243 yards passing and two touchdowns.
Fyfe also ran in a touchdown early in the fourth quarter that cut the Tennessee lead to seven, but Dobbs responded with a 59-yard touchdown pass to Josh Malone on the very next drive.
At some point, though, Tennessee has to turn the positive momentum from winning a bowl game into actual on-field results the next season.
Maybe 2017 will finally be the year. Dobbs is gone, but the Volunteers have two highly-regarded quarterbacks in Quinten Dormady and Jarrett Guarantano who will compete for the starting job. Whoever wins the job will have plenty to work with, as the offense is expected to return nine starters, including top running back Alvin Kamara and top wide receiver Malone.
Even if Barnett leaves early for the NFL as expected, Tennessee should still return eight starters on a defense that played better against Nebraska on Friday.
But the Volunteers have to deliver in 2017. Winning the Music City Bowl doesn't take the heat off Butch Jones heading into next season. Fans want to see next year’s team make it to Atlanta and compete for an SEC championship.