When Kyler Kerbyson first came to Tennessee in 2011, going to a bowl game wasn't just a dream — it was a pipe dream.
The Vols were beginning their three-year postseason drought after making the Music City Bowl in 2010, punctuated by a head coaching change in 2013 when Butch Jones took over for Derek Dooley. Kerbyson grew as a player in those turbulent times and, after some early growing pains, his patience in the program paid off. On Saturday, the redshirt senior helped lead his team to its second consecutive bowl berth with a 24-0 win over North Texas.
Tennessee now sits at 6-4 (3-3) on the season with two games left to play, solidifying a bowl bid for just the fourth time since 2008.
"It's pretty awesome," Kerbyson said after the game. "I'm really happy with it, and I just feel like I left this place better than when I got here, and that's really what I was trying to do the whole time. I think I can speak for every senior that is still here that this what we wanted to do. We wanted to bring Tennessee back to where it is supposed to be."
So where is Tennessee supposed to be exactly? According to the history books, it's playing in games with names like Sugar, Cotton and Orange against illustrious historical opponents like USC, Texas and Ohio State. The Vols aren't quite there yet, but while they have traded Sugar for some Outback in recent years, they're taking steps in the right direction to once again grasp their rightful place in the college football pecking order.
"That is why we've had those big recruiting classes these past few years," Kerbyson said. "Those guys want to do the exact same thing. They want Tennessee to get back to the tradition of winning. We are working very hard toward that, and I'm very happy with this whole team. To be able to get to six wins before a last game nail biter. It feels good to have that clinched."
The Vols will play in their 51st bowl game in program history at the end of this season in a to-be-determined location against a to-be-determined team, but the influence of yet another postseason berth to tack onto the award shelf has, in fact, been determined. Tennessee will get the nice payout, the destination trip to a big city like Memphis or Charlotte or Tampa, and another chance wrap the season in a nice, pretty bow.
"It’s good to be bowl eligible," Butch Jones said after Saturday's game. "These kids have worked so hard, and knowing that we’re going to a bowl game, we’re proud of them. We have two very, very big games coming up. The more you win, the more that’s at stake."
There's plenty of bowl position jockeying to be done in the next two weeks, and Tennessee's options abound. The Vols could make a trip across the state to play in the Liberty Bowl in Memphis or stay close to home in Nashville's Music City Bowl. It's still far too early to prognosticate where Tennessee will end up. The team's last two games against Missouri and Vanderbilt will be the deciding factor.
Not that it much matters to Kerbyson where they end up. He just wants to continue doing the one thing he set out to do when he joined Tennessee five years ago: win.
"We aren't trying to play these games to get in a better bowl," he said. "We are trying to play these games to win. We don't want to lose. We aren't concentrated on what bowl we go to. We're concentrated on Missouri now, and that's it. One day at a time, one week at a time. Once we figure this out, we can move on to the next week."