KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The fact that Tennessee is still practicing at this time of year reflects the strides the Volunteers have made under coach Butch Jones.

Their next step is to end a string of four straight losing seasons by beating Iowa (7-5) in the TaxSlayer Bowl on Jan. 2 in Jacksonville, Florida.

Tennessee (6-6) must beat Iowa to avoid finishing below .500 for a fifth straight year, something that's never happened in school history. Before last year, the Vols hadn't had four straight losing seasons since 1903-06.

"It's very important," senior defensive back Justin Coleman said. "Nobody likes losing. You get that seventh win, that's something that hasn't happened in a long time, or I could say in a couple of years. It's something Tennessee really needs to get back on top."

Tennessee has reason to feel confident it can approach the top of the Southeastern Conference's Eastern Division as soon as next year.

Jones has upgraded the talent base by recruiting at a high level. The class he signed in February was rated among the five best in the nation by several services. The class he's putting together for 2015 also is currently ranked in the top five.

Coleman is one of only four seniors — five if you add punter Matt Darr — who started as many as six games this season. The Vols have played 23 true freshmen, the most of any Football Bowl Subdivision program.

Jones also is quick to note Tennessee's improvements off the field. Tennessee's scholarship football players posted a 2.77 grade point average in the fall semester, which represented their highest mark since the school began tracking that on a sport-by-sport basis in 2003.

"The hardest thing to build in a football program is the culture, the standard, the expectation," Jones said. "The way you practice, the academics, all that. That is the hardest thing about building it. Now, the next step is maintaining it. But we have been through the hard process."

But the progress the Vols say they have made would become much more apparent if they were to finally end up on the right side of .500.

Tennessee hasn't won a bowl game since ending the 2007 season with a 21-17 Outback Bowl victory over Wisconsin. The Vols did reach a bowl game as recently as 2010, but a 30-27 overtime Music City Bowl setback against North Carolina dropped their record to 6-7 and began this string of losing seasons.

"I'm excited to go to a bowl game, but I want to win," freshman defensive end Derek Barnett said. "I don't (just) want to play in it. I want to win the bowl game."

Tennessee wants to reward players for accomplishing the season-long goal of earning the bowl bid that had eluded the Vols the last three seasons while also making sure they're focused on the task at hand. The Vols took a team-bonding trip to Gatlinburg last week and have talked repeatedly about what a victory would do for their momentum heading into 2015.

They believe they've taken a giant step forward. A winning record would provide the best possible evidence.

"They understand what is at stake," Jones said. "They understand the magnitude. If you are a competitor, this is what you work for, to play in games like this."