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Tennessee athletes often say they love playing on the road. Shutting up a hostile crowd is even sweeter than basking in the cheers at home.
Whether it’s winning in Athens or Tuscaloosa in the fall or in Gainesville or Memphis in the winter, that’s about as good as it gets.
From 1995-2006, UT went 40-10 in regular-season football road games. Fans got spoiled. It was worth pumping the gas in the tank and enduring the taunts (and worse) hurled their way.
After a month at home, the 2010 Vols are in store for some serious trekking, four of the next five games coming on the road. It starts Saturday at LSU.
Frankly, first-year coach Derek Dooley has no idea what to expect from a young, inexperienced team. By his count Monday, almost half the travel squad will be making its first road trip.
“This’ll be fun to watch,’’ he said. “You don’t know what’s going to happen.’’
Well, it might not be that much fun to watch.
Dooley is wary of this team’s mindset and for good reason.
“It’s fun to go on the road when you’ve got a confident team,’’ he said.
“They need to play confident, so I want ‘em to be confident. But you earn that right to be confident.’’
And there’s the rub. The 2010 Vols haven’t done a lot to carry any swagger out into the wild, wild world of SEC road games.
False confidence, in fact, was likely the biggest culprit in why the Vols needed two overtimes to survive UAB at home last time out.
You earn confidence with diligence on the practice field and in the video room. You earn it by maintaining mental toughness from the time practice ends on Thursday night up through kickoff.
“That,’’ said Dooley, “is what I think we haven’t gotten yet.
“The importance of preparation in developing confidence. Instead of just walking out there and saying, ‘I’m the guy!’
“We’ve got a lot of that.’’
LSU isn’t the first rodeo for everyone. This senior class is 4-10 in true road games.
They’ve won at the expected stops, Vanderbilt in 2008 and twice at Kentucky in overtime. The other win was at Mississippi State in 2007.
I’m not sure how much swagger is generated from that track record.
Still, give veterans like Luke Stocker, Chris Walker and LaMarcus Thompson some credit. They hung tough at Florida last year and even tougher at Alabama.
But what can be expected of an offensive line that has virtually zero experience dealing with anything like a place nicknamed Death Valley?
“I was going to paint the (practice) field, but that didn’t work for Oregon State,’’ Dooley cracked. “If they had beaten Boise, I might have put a big (Tiger) eye on our field.
“I don’t know how you simulate Tiger Stadium.’’
Dooley knows Tiger Stadium. He coached there five years on Nick Saban’s staff. Then he twice brought his own Louisiana Tech teams there.
The first time, it got ugly. The second time, Tech was competitive enough to pucker up the crowd.
“It’s about like most great venues,’’ he said. “The best thing opponents can do is come down there and play well.
“Because if you allow the crowd to be a weapon, it’ll be a weapon.’’
Tennessee was last there in 2005 and saw both sides of the crowd. It was deafening when the Vols were falling behind 21-0, less so as they rallied for a 30-27 upset in overtime.
However, there isn’t a soul, player or coach, left from that night of triumph over adversity.
It’s a whole new adventure. And it’s fair to wonder how many of the adventurers really understand what it takes.
Mike Strange may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 865-342-6276.