A bowl trip to Orlando, Fla., made Tennessee the butt of a Steve Spurrier joke in the mid-1990s. A decade later, back-to-back Peach Bowls did nothing more than cut into the Vols' cell phone time.
Bowl games are ideally characterized as a reward for a successful season. But they don't always turn out that way.
Some become full-blown disasters. Others negate half a season's worth of goodwill.
The Vols should keep that in mind when they began preparation for a December bowl.
The team has rebounded from a 2-6 start to win four consecutive games. It has momentum and a chance to have a winning season. It has done a month's worth of hard work but it hasn't finished the job.
A bowl victory would leave the Vols at 7-6, just where they left off last season. That's no small achievement considering all the attrition between last season and this one. But if the Vols don't invest as much effort in this game as they did the last third of the season, the bowl could become a dark hole.
There's no shame in losing a bowl. There's considerable embarrassment in not showing up, as evidenced by those dreadful showings in the Georgia Dome following the 2002 and 2003 seasons.
Performances like that can linger through an entire offseason.
UT's 2006 team rebounded from a 5-6 record in 2005 to win nine of 12 regular-season games. Even two of its losses - by one point to eventual national champion Florida and by four to top-10 LSU - were encouraging.
Had the season ended with the routine sweep of Vanderbilt and Kentucky, fans would have been basking in the program's resilience and potential. The Vols ruined that outlook with a desultory exhibition against Penn State in the Outback Bowl.
A bowl production comparable to that from this team would be surprising for a couple of reasons.
Nothing has come easy for this team. It has suffered humiliating losses on its home field to Oregon and Alabama, and lost a game that it all but won in Tiger Stadium. When there's no time on the clock, the score is in your favor and you still lose - you learn not to take anything for granted.
These Vols know they have the thinnest margin for error. Even though they're on a four-game winning streak and bowl-bound, their running game has been reduced to a whisper, their punt returns are comedic fodder for their head coach and they're ninth in the SEC in total offense and 10th in total defense. So no one has to remind them there's vast room for improvement.
It's reasonable to expect they will improve during the next set of practices.
First-year coach Derek Dooley and his staff have been preaching improvement since their arrival. The sermon won't change this month.
They aren't just preparing their team for another game. They're preparing their next team for another season.
Qualifying for those extra practices is an accomplishment in itself. And gaining a head start on 2011 is a boost for a program that has had so many setbacks over the last year.
Playing well in a bowl won't affect next season. But it will impact the off-season atmosphere.
Fans who went all the way to Tampa, Fla., for the 2007 Outback Bowl can vouch for that.