There wasn't anything beautiful about the sloppy Tennessee win over Vanderbilt -- the two teams combined for 534 yards and five turnovers -- but it was still possible to see signs of progress. Maybe for both teams.
For Tennessee, of course, they have their first bowl bid in four years, and a chance for the program's first winning record since Lane Kiffin's sole season in Knoxville in 2009. Even against a Vanderbilt team that has appeared outmanned and outcoached in every conference game that it's played, and even in some of the nonconference games that it's won, style points weren't the priority here. Just winning was.
So Joshua Dobbs took a step back in the passing game (11-of-20 for 92 yards and two interceptions). So the Vols allowed a Vanderbilt team that has struggled to generate offensive touchdowns find the end zone twice after lengthy, sustained drives. So Tennessee was 3-of-13 on third down and got outgained by 10 yards. So what? A bowl game is a tangible sign of the progress that Butch Jones has appeared to be making and a point to sell to recruits: Things are getting better in Knoxville now.
For Vanderbilt, the signs of progress were sparing, but they include this: For the first time this year, the Commodores lost an SEC game by a single possession. For that matter, this marked the first time in 2014 that Vanderbilt wasn't defeated by double digits. And the 262 yards that Vanderbilt allowed Tennessee marks the lowest opponent's total yardage of the season -- despite Vanderbilt having played Old Dominion and Charleston Southern out of the FCS. That's something to build on.
Whether or not it's enough, particularly now that Tennessee is making up some of the ground it had lost to Vanderbilt in recent years, depends on how much Derek Mason is able to build off of that. Some of that might start with tearing down a few things -- Mason hinted at as much following the loss -- but this was the first glimmer of hope that things might be able to get better. It was a lot less equivocal than that for Tennessee; the Vols are clearly getting better. Hope is starting to become something a little more real.