Tennessee Stat Book
Bowl games were once taken for granted at Tennessee. In fact, they were so common, anything short of a New Year's Day bowl was practically an insult.
From 1989 through 2004, the Vols ended 16 consecutive seasons in a bowl. Nine of those bowls were played on Jan. 1 and three others - including one for the national championship - were at least as prestigious.
Prestige no longer matters. Neither does the date. Any bowl will do.
It's not so much about the extra game. It's about the extra practices.
All season long, first-year coach Derek Dooley has been stressing improvement for a young, inexperienced team. What better way to improve than to keep practicing through December? It's akin to having two springs worth of practice.
The Vols wouldn't just be preparing for a game. They would be preparing for next season.
I don't believe a bowl game sets the tone for the next season. I do believe extra weeks of practice can expedite the rebuilding process for a down program.
That's why the last three regular-season games are so important to the Vols, who can become bowl eligible by beating Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and Kentucky.
That seemed unlikely during a blowout loss to Georgia and those wretched second halves against Oregon and Alabama - all of which added up to a 2-6 start. But the second-half comeback in a loss to South Carolina and a runaway 50-14 victory over Memphis on Saturday night indicated the Vols have the wherewithal to win out.
Despite all the injuries, attrition and bad losses, the team's psyche is intact. Freshmen have provided needed depth, and the offense has perked up.
Now, if the defense can just slow down Ole Miss on Saturday and Kentucky in the regular-season finale, the Vols can end November on a four-game winning streak and earn their way to a bowl game - and those much-needed extra practices.
If you just asked "What about Vanderbilt?" you haven't been paying attention.
The Commodores are in the process of unraveling, as you might have noticed if you watched any first-half series of their 55-14 loss to Florida on Saturday afternoon.
The Commodores have been outscored 168-35 in their last four games and rank 118th out of 120 teams in total offense. They also rank 92nd in scoring defense. How's that for balance?
Ole Miss and Kentucky can score. But so can their opponents.
The Rebels have allowed 35 points or more in five games and rank 100th nationally in scoring defense. Kentucky has given up an average of 34.8 points per game in the last seven games and ranks 85th in scoring defense.
Not all of their problems are on defense. Ole Miss quarterback Jeremiah Masoli left Saturday's game against Louisiana-Lafayette with a "mild concussion." He's expected to be OK this week, but concussion symptoms aren't always predictable.
Kentucky has had to play the last three games without leading rusher Derrick Locke (shoulder), and just lost promising freshman running back Raymond Sanders to an abdominal injury.
UT has injury issues as well. But they have been offset, in part, by the development of younger players.
Sixteen freshmen were listed on UT's two-deep depth chart against Memphis. Eight of the 24 starters were freshmen.
Their progress figures prominently in UT's stretch run, which - in a best-case scenario - will lead to a bowl game and an opportunity for further improvement.
I'm talking about practice.