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Tennessee vs Iowa - On The Horizon

The Vols' first bowl appearance since 2010 can be the next step in a rebuilding project that looks for significant steps in 2015.

Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

We all hope Tennessee is on the way back to the Promised Land under Butch Jones.  Watching Oregon last night, we were all reminded that there are giants in the land.

It can feel like we've still got such a long way to go when you watch the Ducks do the same thing to Florida State they did to us last year.  And in so many ways, that's true.  Next year the Vols will be trying to win with sophomores, more freshmen, and a few critical juniors.  We may have stopped being so young, but we are still so inexperienced at winning football.

This season, especially early, we struggled with the narrow space between competitiveness and winning.  The Vols didn't get Oregoned, they got bled to death.  On the one hand it's encouraging because the Vols were in every game in the fourth quarter.  On the other hand it's maddening because we only really won one of those upper-tier games, and that's being generous to South Carolina's defense.

Next year the realistic goal won't be 12-0; we're still miles from the Promised Land.  But you're beginning to believe that the generation that knew only the wilderness is passing on.  The 18 year olds wearing orange this season have shown flashes of the true greatness that could await them at 20.  There are miles to go, but you can begin to see it on the horizon if you look for it.

It is, of course, one of our oldest truths:  people see what they want to see.  And we want to see Tennessee back in January to stay.  That's been the biggest takeaway from bowl prep to me:  not just having another game, the first since 2010, but another post-New Year affair, the first since 2007.  A reminder of the rhythms of a successful season.

As has been the case all year, the larger steps of growth for this program are there, Butch's brick foundation and all that.  But truth continues to be easier to find in victory than defeat.  Lose today, and you'll have questions about mirages.  Win today, and the horizon gets just a little clearer.

Tennessee's biggest step yet to take - the offensive line - will have their hands full with a talented Iowa defensive line.  It remains the most specific problem I've ever seen for a Tennessee team; the names and faces will be the same one more time today, but with a month to prepare you'd love to see progress.  The defense it will see today will be like many it will see next season on the way up.

The same is true for our quarterback, who struggled against Missouri's better defense and now will face Iowa without Marquez North and Jason Croom.  Today is a big day for the Ballad of Josh Dobbs.  The next verse or two will really determine how we feel about the song, but these notes today will continue to craft our expectations.

The defense carried the baton for the first half of the season before they handed it to Dobbs.  Can they carry it again today if the offense can't go and this turns ugly again?  Brandon Scherff is a giant.  Is Derek Barnett a slingshot?

There will be no arrivals today, no true promises of the Georgia Dome in victory or a hot seat in defeat.  But finally back in January, Tennessee can take another step in this journey from the wilderness to the future.  Lose, and it'll be so much easier to focus on our surroundings.  Win, and it'll be so much easier - and so much more fun - to focus on where we're going.

What story will Team 118 tell in its final chapter?

Go Vols.