Tennessee Stat Book
AP Top 25 College Football
ATLANTA - Polls and public opinion don't seem to matter to Lane Kiffin.
The Tennessee coach doesn't exactly buy bowls as a springboard into next season, he's refused all year to place extra importance on one game and the Vols aren't playing for conference pride.
For the better part of a month Kiffin has shot down all the traditional sources of motivation for a New Year's Eve party with Virginia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Bowl (TV: ESPN, 7:30 p.m.). That doesn't mean UT doesn't care, though - it's just that beating the No. 11 Hokies is reward enough.
"I just think it's the next step for our program," Kiffin said. "To finish winning four out of the last five games, to win our last four SEC East games to finish second in the East, then to come in to what I would consider a BCS bowl and playing a top-11 opponent that's been to the Orange Bowl the last two years in a row, won the Orange Bowl a year ago and only had one player drafted off that team, it shows you how talented this team is that we're going to play (today).
"To be able to get that win would really help us a lot to finish up our first year as we go into our second recruiting class."
A win at the Georgia Dome might not improve it much, but it clearly wouldn't slow the process down.
The Vols (7-5) can already point out progress since the start of Kiffin's first season, though the signature performances have mostly come in narrow losses. Knocking off the Hokies (9-3) could vault UT into the top 25, give it something to add to the trophy case and help it make a case that it belongs with the conference elite again.
Whether Kiffin will admit it publicly or not, all of those would help his plan for rebuilding the program.
"That'd be huge," quarterback Jonathan Crompton said. "There were a few games early where we thought we could have won, but unfortunately we didn't. We finished up strong, we got into a good bowl game, playing a top-11 team, and it's something where we really want to come back and prove to ourselves that, 'Hey, those games that we didn't win, we should have. This is who we are.'
"It would be huge, especially for the guys coming back next year to be in the top 25, that would be huge for them."
The problem is the number of guys that won't be coming back after the bowl, including Crompton, almost the entire offensive line and probably superstar safety Eric Berry.
That's part of the reason Kiffin has downplayed the significance of winning to create momentum. To some extent the ball is already rolling anyway.
"I think in this particular case, as you look at it at the end of the year, we're playing one of the best - if not the best - teams in the SEC," Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said. "I think anyone that looked at it and had followed football would say this team is right at the top of the SEC. We played Alabama and I saw how they played Alabama and took it right to them . . . and the bottom line is we're playing the best in the SEC and we understand that.
"If that field goal goes through against Alabama down there, I think it's a different situation for sure. But the bottom line is we're playing one of the best, if not the best team in the SEC. That's the facts."
Kiffin will certainly have a chance to prove it. But all that really seems to matter to him is having a better team than the Hokies.
The rest is just a bonus.