- Associated Press - Saturday, January 2, 2016

Tennessee certainly finished off the season in style.

If the Volunteers start next season as well as they closed their last two, they’ll really be ready to make a move up the college football ladder.

Tennessee ended the season with its first six-game winning streak since 2003. The Vols (9-4) started just five seniors Friday in their 45-6 Outback Bowl rout of No. 12 Northwestern. The streak and postseason win gives them reason to believe they can enter the 2016 season as legitimate Southeastern Conference title contenders.

“The sky’s the limit,” quarterback Joshua Dobbs said.

Tennessee’s chances of contending for a conference championship could depend on if it does a better job of handling heightened expectations. That proved to be a stumbling block at times in 2015.

The Vols opened this season ranked 25th - their first Top 25 ranking since 2012 - after winning four of their last five games in 2014 and beating Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl. They fell out of the poll by showing an early season inability to preserve leads.

Tennessee led in each of its four defeats and was up at least two touchdowns in losses to Oklahoma, Florida and Arkansas. But just when the season appeared ready to spiral out of control, Tennessee regrouped.

The Vols were 2-3 before erasing a 21-point deficit in a 38-31 victory over Georgia. They followed that game with a 19-14 setback at Alabama in which they led the Crimson Tide in the fourth quarter, but they wouldn’t lose again.

“This football team defines resolve,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. “There were a lot of individuals that wanted to bury us. … Actually, the adversity brought us closer and closer together, united us.”

Tennessee’s most lopsided bowl victory in school history could allow the Vols to finish the season in the Top 25 for the first time since 2007. They’re ready to take an even bigger step forward next season.

The Vols must replace the starting safety duo of Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil, but they’ll have plenty of experience everywhere else. Tennessee’s only senior starters in the Outback Bowl were Randolph, McNeil, offensive tackle Kyler Kerbyson, wide receiver Von Pearson and defensive tackle Owen Williams.

The offense next season will have one of the SEC’s most experienced quarterbacks in Dobbs and an all-SEC candidate running back in Jalen Hurd, the Outback Bowl MVP. Derek Barnett will be back on defense after recording 10 sacks each of the last two seasons.

If they can avoid a repeat of this season’s early struggles, the Vols could have more reason to celebrate next January.

“They can be back in Tampa again,” Kerbyson said. “The (College Football Playoff championship game) is in Tampa. I believe in them 100 percent, that they can do it.”

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AP college website: collegefootball.ap.org

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