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Following win over South Carolina, Tennessee is projected to return to a bowl game

Things are looking up.

NCAA Football: South Carolina at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

For Tennessee, it’s been quite the ride since their last appearance in a bowl game. That was late 2016 — just 11 months later, the wildest coaching search of all time would take place. Jeremy Pruitt emerged from the ashes, tasked with bringing Tennessee back to life once again.

Finally, halfway through his second year, the Volunteers appear to be turning a corner.

Tennessee blew out South Carolina on Saturday night at Neyland Stadium, using a couple of backup quarterbacks. The Vols were aggressive both offensively and defensively, building on the moral victories that we saw against Alabama and Georgia.

Now sitting at 3-5, there’s a legitimate chance that Tennessee could just run the table. But they don’t even have to do that to make a return to a bowl game. The Volunteers have to win three of their final four games, which come against UAB, Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt.

According to two analysts at ESPN, the Vols will get that done. Following week nine, Tennessee appeared in the latest bowl projections from ESPN, landing in the Gator Bowl matchup in Jacksonville. Indiana and Iowa were projected as the potential opponent.

Tennessee last appeared in the Gator bowl after the 2014 season, blowing out Iowa 45-28.

After the way this season began, getting to 6-6 would be a massive win. Going 7-5 would feel like coming back from the dead. It also makes you think back — what if Tennessee had it together week one? What if they don’t give up that big play to BYU late? This team would have a legitimate shot at nine wins.

But we’ll take the progress.

Next up for Tennessee is a potentially tricky game with a 6-1 UAB team. Vegas thinks it’s going to be fairly competitive, which doesn’t seem totally off-base. Tennessee can’t afford a letdown here, looking ahead to three winnable SEC games to end the season.