- Offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe talks to the media.
- Quarterback Erik Ainge talks to the media.
- Offensive line coach Greg Adkins talks to the media.
- Defensive end Xavier Mitchell talks to the media.
Tennessee Stat Book
They arrived full of optimism and confidence. Their goal was, obviously, to win championships. They're down to their last chance.
There's still a trip to Lexington on the docket, but for 21 Tennessee seniors, Saturday is the final run through the 'T' at Neyland Stadium.
You couldn't name all 21 if you tried. Several have given up playing. A few were walk-ons who stuck it out but never got on the field, save the jayvee game earlier this fall.
The guys who will enter hostilities with Vanderbilt are a combination of the 2003 and 2004 signing classes, plus old-timer J.T. Mapu from 2002. It's been quite a ride.
"We've been through the ups and downs,'' defensive end Xavier Mitchell said Tuesday.
That applies to both their careers and their senior season.
Once in the not so distant past a down season at Tennessee got you the Citrus Bowl. These guys experienced the redefinition of down.
Things started well enough. They won the SEC East in 2004. Beaten by Auburn in the SEC championship game, they finished with an impressive Cotton Bowl romp.
Then came 2005, when, to everyone's surprise, the wheels went way off the track. A 5-6 record, no bowl, losing to Vanderbilt in Neyland. A hat trick of misery, none of which you'd want happening on your watch.
Their junior year, 2006, was a credible rebound at 9-4, although initial momentum had fizzled by the end.
As for 2007, it's been a good fall for chiropractors, what with all the whiplash from the highs and lows.
UT's three losses have been by a combined 70 points. And yet six wins in the past seven games puts these seniors two steps away from going out the way they came in, with an SEC East title and a date in Atlanta.
"This group has experienced a lot,'' said head coach Phillip Fulmer. "It's been very important, bouncing back from something very unfamiliar to us.''
It's a class defined by quality rather than quantity. Only 10 are a cinch to get in the game Saturday. Quarterback Erik Ainge, by all accounts, has risen to the occasion of senior leadership.
"I think his legacy will be one of respect by his teammates,'' said offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe, "respect that was a little bit hard-earned because everybody knows there was a rocky road there for a while.''
Assistant coach Trooper Taylor says Casey Woods is an unsung hero in this class:
"I wouldn't even have to show up for meetings and he'd make sure everybody's doing what they're supposed to do.''
Jonathan Hefney hasn't had the uniformly excellent season he'd like but a couple of coaches praised his leadership in an inexperienced secondary.
Nobody could argue that Tennessee has fought back from the fiasco of 2005. Still, the extent of that recovery has yet to be defined.
An East title, at the minimum, would be a respectable exit for these seniors. Then you roll the dice against No. 1 LSU in the championship game and see what happens.
"We need to put this program back where it needs to be,'' said tight end Chris Brown.
And that unfinished business is very much on the minds of the guys who will play for the last time in Neyland on Saturday.
"Senior Day will be fun,'' said Ainge, "but, honestly, at the end of the day, when the clock's over, do we have more points than they do?
"That's 100 percent what it's all about for every person that has anything to do with this program right now.''
Having more points than Vanderbilt has isn't just about avenging home turf from 2005. It's a means to an end for a class with a legacy yet to determine.
"I'd love,'' said Mitchell, "to write an ending with playing in Atlanta and bringing home a championship.
"This is a great opportunity to put a check mark on one last goal we have set.''
Mike Strange may be reached at 865-342-6276 or email@example.com.