KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee used to be in a position that it could take annual bowl appearances for granted.
Although most of Tennessee’s preseason goals already are out of reach, the Volunteers (4-6. 0-6 SEC) still could earn the bowl bid that eluded them last season by if they win their last two regular-season games Saturday at Vanderbilt (6-4, 4-3) and Nov. 24 against Kentucky (1-9, 0-7).
Tennessee stayed home for the holidays and finished 5-7 last year after ending the season with a 10-7 loss to Kentucky, snapping the Vols’ 26-game winning streak in that annual series. That disappointment gives them extra incentive this year.
“It would mean a lot to the whole program,” junior wide receiver Justin Hunter said. “It was hard (last year) because we just knew we were going to go to a bowl game, and we lost to a team we hadn’t lost to in a long time. It was a setback for us and made us want it more.”
Tennessee hasn’t failed to reach a bowl game in back-to-back seasons since being left out four consecutive years from 1975-78. If the Vols don’t become bowl eligible this year, they would end up with three straight losing seasons for the first time since 1909-11.
That makes it all the more critical for Tennessee to win these last two games.
“You don’t want to feel that embarrassment again, from not making it to a bowl game,” senior linebacker Willie Bohannon said. “There are a lot of things that people here in the past have done for Tennessee, and not making it to a bowl game two consecutive years, it’s not going to be good. It won’t go over well.”
The possibility of playing in a minor bowl such as the Music City, Liberty, Compass or Independence might not seem like much of an honor for a program that participated in more prestigious bowls for most of the last two decades.
But the players still consider it a great way to finish a season. They remember the gifts they received and the trips they made during previous bowl appearances. And they recall how much they missed that opportunity last season.
“I can speak from experience,” junior nose guard Daniel Hood said. “I felt like I was in the national championship game when we went to the Music City Bowl (in 2010). It’s an awesome experience.”
Hood considers a bowl more than a reward. He believes the extra practices that come with a bowl appearance can make them a better team.
“It would give us more time to work,” Hood said. “Obviously we’re not where we need to be technique-wise or discipline-wise or things like that. That extra month will give us more time to develop our techniques and get better.”
Tennessee won’t have an easy path to a bowl. The Vols are four-point underdogs Saturday against a Vanderbilt team eager to earn a rare victory over its in-state rival.
“We’re still trying to prove ourselves,” Vanderbilt coach James Franklin said. “I’ve got a chip on my shoulder. We have an underdog, blue-collar mentality. That’s who we are and we’re going to be that way for a long time until we can consistently put a product on the field that everyone can be excited about. We still have a long way to go as a program for us to be thinking we’re being hunted.”
Vanderbilt has lost 28 of its last 29 games with Tennessee, the lone win coming in 2005. Tennessee beat Vanderbilt 27-21 last year on Eric Gordon’s 90-yard interception return in overtime.
“We don’t pay attention to point spreads and things like that,” junior offensive guard Alex Bullard said. “We feel like we have a better team than Vanderbilt, and we just need to go out there and play like it.”
Tennessee also must prepare for these next two games while dealing with the questions surrounding the future of Vols coach Derek Dooley, who owns a 15-20 record in his three-year tenure. Some players indicated Dooley’s uncertain job status is a distraction, whereas others say it hasn’t bothered them at all.
The Vols may be better equipped than most teams to deal with those types of issues. Tennessee’s fifth-year seniors already have endured two coaching changes. They were there when Phillip Fulmer was fired late in the 2008 season and also experienced Lane Kiffin’s abrupt departure after one year on the job.
“We’ve been through three coaches by now,” fifth-year senior cornerback Prentiss Waggner said. “That’s basically the last thing we’re thinking about. We’re thinking about playing these last two games and having fun with it.”
They’re also thinking about avoiding a repeat of last year.
“It was tough sitting at home watching all those bowl games, knowing you should be in one of them,” senior wide receiver Zach Rogers said. “We don’t want that to happen this year. That was a bad feeling in our stomachs last year.”