Tennessee climbs one peg up on college football ladder

Tennessee's senior class helps dig the Vols out of despair and into delight.

Brian Randolph is not an sentimental guy. 

The redshirt senior has said that often in the past few weeks as his Tennessee career winds to an end, a twisting path filled with potholes and knots and a more than a few patches. Randolph came fresh into the Derek Dooley era and stayed when Butch Jones was announced as the new head coach in 2013, enduring three straight 5-7 seasons. 

He dreamed of one day restoring Tennessee back into the formidable power it once was. On Saturday, in front of more than 98,000 people, Randolph helped the Vols climb a peg back into that direction by closing out the season with a 58-23 win over Vanderbilt to give Tennessee its first eight-or-more win season since 2007.

“It means everything to us," Randolph said after the game. "We are all prideful guys. We wanted to come in and make Tennessee a better place than when we got here. I felt like I did that, and I know the rest of the boys will continue to do it.”

Left tackle Kyler Kerbyson believes the same thing. There was a time when he was just "offensive lineman Kyler Kerbyson", seeing as how he switched positions seemingly every week over the course of his Tennessee career. But Kerbyson also helped usher in a new era at Tennessee, surviving a 15-21 three-year stretch before assisting his team in landing back-to-back bowl games for the first time since the 2009-10 seasons.

"I give everything to this," Kerbyson said. "I am so happy to be a Vol. I wouldn't take anything back that happened. I wouldn't want to go any other place for college. I am very appreciative of the opportunity I got."

Things started out extremely messy. After blasting Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl to start the year in January, Tennessee began the 2015 season at 3-4 with double-digit blown leads in three of those games. After relinquishing a short-lived fourth quarter lead against Alabama four their fourth loss in seven games, the Vols ripped off five consecutive victories to end the season and put improvement down on paper in the form of two extra regular season wins compared to 2014.

Danny Parker
“I’m just proud of the resolve and the resiliency of this football team, particularly led by our senior class," Butch Jones said. "This is a team that did not let adversity define who we are. They just kept grinding, building it, and putting their head down – just working their consistency in approach every day.

Eight wins is certainly not the benchmark at Tennessee, nor is it the ceiling. We're talking about the 12th-most winningest program in NCAA history, one that boasts multiple national championships, 38 consensus All-Americans and 567 total weeks in the AP Top 25. Tennessee has more tradition than your family's Christmas. But after falling from grace after Phil Fulmer stepped down in 2008, suffering four losing seasons in that span, the Vols appear to be methodically on their way to climbing back up the ladder.

Brian Randolph isn't a sentimental guy. But Jalen Reeves-Maybin can be, according to his teammate. So when the two embraced inside Neyland Stadium, Randolph realized his time was coming to an end.

"Jalen came up to me and gave me a hug. I saw a tear in his eye," Randolph said. "I went, 'I wonder what he's crying for?' I figured it was because it was our last time  playing here together. That was my moment when I realized that my career at Neyland Stadium was coming to an end."

As for Tennessee?

It's only the beginning.

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