KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Tennessee is on the verge of making the type of history it would rather avoid.
Unless the Volunteers (4-6, 1-5 SEC) win the rest of their games, they will have losing records in four straight years for the first time since 1903-06.
If Tennessee wins Nov. 23 against Vanderbilt (5-4, 2-4) and Nov. 30 at Kentucky (2-7, 0-5), it would become bowl eligible for the first time since 2010. That gives Tennessee incentive for the rest of the season.
"Getting to a bowl game is our team goal, and it is crucial," Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs said Saturday after the Vols fell 55-23 to Auburn for their third straight loss. "It is crucial for us to get the senior class to a bowl game because they deserve that. We are working hard every day to accomplish that goal. We have two games to go and do it."
Getting to a bowl game and avoiding a losing season would provide a sense of stability to a program recently marked by unrest.
Butch Jones is Tennessee's fourth head coach in six seasons, and that total doesn't include Jim Chaney, who served as interim coach for the Vols' 2012 season finale. The Vols haven't won more than seven games in a season since going 10-4 and reaching the SEC championship game in 2007.
That represents a steep fall for a program that won at least eight games for 16 consecutive seasons from 1989-2004 and posted double-digit wins in nine of those years. After the Auburn game, Jones spoke at length about his desire to return Tennessee to that level of success.
"I believe in Tennessee football," Jones said. "I believe in our fan base. I gave up a lot to come here because I want to be a part of building something special and having that responsibility of bringing Tennessee football back. I love Tennessee. Our pride and passion for this place drives us every day in recruiting, in developing our players. And if it kills me, it kills me. I'm going to put everything I have in it to get Tennessee football back."
The Vols have maintained that sense of urgency this week.
Senior offensive guard Zach Fulton said the Vols had a player-led meeting Monday in which the older players discussed the benefits of earning a bowl bid.
The Vols also stressed the importance of avenging last year's 41-18 loss to Vanderbilt.
"This is the biggest game of our careers, of our football careers in general," senior defensive end Corey Miller said Tuesday. "It's do or die. It's time to make your statement as the team in Tennessee, to take over and keep moving forward as a football team. This is going to be the biggest game we've ever played."
Tennessee believes it should benefit from having a week off to prepare for these last two games. The Vols' best performance - a 23-21 victory against No. 11 South Carolina - followed their first off week.
The Vols have shown signs of wearing down after facing seven ranked opponents in an eight-game stretch. Before beating South Carolina, Tennessee lost 34-31 in overtime to No. 25 Georgia, ranked sixth at the time.
But during its last three games, Tennessee has been outscored 131-36 by top-ranked Alabama, No. 9 Missouri and No. 7 Auburn.
"For all the momentum that Coach Jones has created this year, it would be a shame (for) every single senior to go out without a bowl game this year," senior defensive tackle Daniel Hood said. "We've got to treat this game as if it's Game 7 of the finals."