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How does Tennessee football bounce back from such a devastating loss?

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It’s hard to lose more in one game than Tennessee football lost last Saturday. The Vols saw their College Football Playoff hopes dashed, and they lost their Heisman-caliber quarterback, whose Heisman hopes likely went with it.

That it came in an embarrassing 63-38 upset loss to the South Carolina Gamecocks, a team they were favored to beat by three touchdowns, only adds to the heartbreak. With everything they fought for gone, how do they re-focus?

UT has one regular season game left and the chance to play in a New Year’s Six bowl. They are also one win away from their first 10-win season since 2007.

“It’s important that we go finish this off the right way,” Josh Heupel said in his Monday press conference. “We still have a lot of things that we’re playing for. First and foremost, this is just our next opportunity to go play together, so we’re looking forward to that opportunity.”

Should they reach a New Year’s Six bowl, it would be their most elite bowl appearance since 1999, when they lost to the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the Fiesta Bowl. They would likely reach a former BCS bowl.

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Now, to be fair, the Vols did play in the Cotton Bowl in 2000 and 2004, and they played in the Peach Bowl in 2002, 2003 and 2009. However, the Peach Bowl is a College Football Playoff game this year, and the Cotton Bowl is much more elite.

It’s actually highly possible they reach the Sugar Bowl, which would be a first since 1990. Simply put, this team can still do many things that haven’t been done on Rocky Top in a while.

“I don’t really know when the last time was that we played for a New Year’s Six bowl, but I know that it’s still something that we’re looking forward to,” Omari Thomas said in Monday’s media session. “We just have to go out here this week and handle business against Vandy, let the chips fall where they fall and hopefully we get to play in a New Year’s Six bowl.”

If the Vols beat the Vanderbilt Commodores Saturday, they are likely to head to one of those New Year’s Six bowls. It’s impossible see a scenario where they don’t get in.

Along with making one of those bowls, they would finish with 10 wins in the regular season for the first time since 2003. It also puts their first top 10 finish since 2001 on the table.

“We still have a lot to play for,” Jabari Small said in a Tuesday media session. “That is definitely a goal of ours, and getting 10 wins, which is something that has not been done in a long time. We have a lot to play for, and those are some bowl games that we are very excited about getting the opportunity to play in.”

Heupel said on Saturday that he wanted the loss to hurt for the players and coaches. However, they have to be able to translate that hurt into improving.

Is there any way the Vols can remember what happened Saturday and not let it destroy their psyche? Byron Young said it’s all about preparation.

“You have to study better, study harder,” Young said Tuesday. “Go back in the film, keep watching, see what we did wrong, or we are going to make those mistakes next game.”

Two Tennessee football teams have responded differently to such devastating outcomes. In 2016, as the Vols were dominating Senior Day, the Florida Gators shocked the LSU Tigers, costing them the SEC East.

UT responded by losing at Vanderbilt a week later, which cost the Vols a shot at a New Year’s Six bowl then. That’s probably the most similar they are to this game.

In terms of devastation, though, this loss compares to the 2001 team’s SEC Championship game loss to the LSU Tigers. The Vols responded with a 45-17 win over the Michigan Wolverines in the Citrus Bowl.

“We got to really love on each other, really encourage each other, not really worry about what happened last week,” linebacker Aaron Beasley said Monday. “Just come together, because at the end of the day, we’re all we got in that family over there. We just got to lean on each other.”

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