The bowl season has become a blur by now.
I struggle to distinguish between Arizona's spectacular finish against Nevada and Baylor's first-half surge against UCLA. And I can't separate the games in which helmet-to-helmet hits were called personal fouls from the games in which they were called good defense.
Was it the Duke running back who lost the ball and consciousness on the same play? Or was that a San Jose State ballcarrier?
Amidst the mixed memories, Cincinnati provides some clarity. Maybe that's because it wasn't just playing in a bowl. It was giving us a preview of "Butch Ball."
Coach Butch Jones didn't stick around for the Bearcats' bowl venture against Duke. He took the Tennessee coaching job and brought the majority of his coaches with him, leaving a patchwork staff behind.
Never mind that he had moved on. The team that beat Duke 48-34 in the Belk Bowl was the team he built. He might have left the premises, but his mark couldn't have been removed from the program or the team that easily.
UT fans might not have been impressed by the performance. The same Duke team that collapsed in the last month of the regular season outplayed the favored Bearcats for much of the game.
A fair critique of Cincinnati would have to include the coaching attrition that left it shorthanded in the preparatory process as well as game-day management. The broadcasters left the impression that the Bearcats were rounding up workers right up until kickoff. A football office secretary's husband even had a role. How's that for resourcefulness, or desperation?
However flawed the bowl production might have been, the overall impression wasn't necessarily negative. Cincinnati struck me as a tough team — tough enough not to be impacted by all the distractions that accompany a coaching change and tough enough to overcome a 16-0 early deficit against a Duke team motivated to win its first bowl since 1961.
The Bearcats' defense often was on its heels against coach David Cutcliffe's offense. Despite all the ground it gave up, it didn't lose its aggressiveness. The same aggressiveness was apparent in Cincinnati's running and blocking on offense.
UT fans could appreciate the same aggressiveness and toughness in Jones' first Tennessee team.
Coach Derek Dooley's third team was tougher than his first. But in a league as tough as the SEC, the degree of improvement wasn't enough. Besides,
how aggressive and tough can a defense be when it too frequently couldn't get within striking distance of a running back or receiver? And how physical can your running game be when your offensive strength is pitching and catching?
Jones stressed "physical play" at his introductory media conference last month. He apparently made the same point when he met with former Tennessee players.
Former UT offensive tackle Mike Stowell liked what he heard. Stowell, who was a guest on "The Sports Page" radio show last week, referred to Jones' "drill-sergeant" approach to football. It's an approach Stowell favors.
During the Christmas holidays, Stowell happened to catch the final minutes of Tennessee's victory over Arkansas in its 1998 national championship season. The game-winning drive consisted of one run after another in which UT blockers dominated the Razorbacks at the line of scrimmage. It brought back fond memories for Stowell.
He remembers the same type of attack when he blocked on UT's behalf in the early 1990s. Those teams were known for having great skill players like wide receiver Carl Pickens and running back Chuck Webb, but they also were physically tough teams.
Improving UT's talent is a recruiting matter. In the meantime, maybe the Vols can tough it out under their new coach.