Tennessee arrived in Jacksonville Sunday. As the players stepped off the plane, coach Butch Jones greeted each one of them with a warm handshake.
None of the Volunteers have played in a bowl game. That was scheduled to end on Friday when they face Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl.
"Butch had a big smile on his face and was happy to see everybody," offensive lineman Jacob Gilliam said. "It's a big moment for our program to be out here playing in a bowl game. For so many years, we didn't get that chance and it's great for all these young guys to be out here practicing. It's good for me. I get one last chance to play some ball."
Gilliam was a redshirt freshman in 2010, the last time the Vols tasted the postseason. It's their first January bowl since playing in the Outback in '07.
"Everything is new for our players but it's also been an eye-opening experience in a positive way, the team chemistry with the bowl functions and being together as a football team," Jones said. "But, again, the number one deal is coming down here to win the bowl game and it's all about your preparation."
The Vols ranked ninth among SEC teams allowing 23.9 points per game. They finished ninth in scoring offense (27.6).
Iowa ranked seventh in the Big Ten in scoring offense (28.2) and defense (24.0). Despite finishing 10th in rushing (156.3), the Hawkeyes continued to carry the tag of being a run-first outfit.
"We expect to face a team that's going to run the ball. They're going to keep on running until we stop them," Tennessee freshman defensive end Derek Barnett said. "So, we know they're good, physical and strong with good players all around the field. I feel like we match up well with them."
The experience edge goes to Iowa, which played another SEC team, LSU, in last year's Outback Bowl. The Vols are the youngest team in the FBS.
"They are a junior and senior-laden team, so they have the experience factor," Jones said. "Their fifth-year seniors are on their fourth bowl experience, and the preparation that goes into a bowl game and being able to X-out all of the clutter and distractions and focus on the task at hand. They do what they do and they execute it well and execute it with a high level of physicality as well."
Left tackle Brandon Scherff represented Iowa's lone first-team all-Big Ten selection. The Vols did not have a player honored on the SEC's top squad.
These teams rely on contributions from a lot of players when things go well. The offenses spread the ball around to different skills players. The defenses break down when one or two guys fail to do their jobs.
Tennessee's top two players might be on defense. Barnett (10 sacks), who was playing at Brentwood Academy last year, and linebacker Curt Maggitt (11 sacks), are second-team all-SEC picks by the Associated Press.
The Vols are taking positive steps as a program under Jones. They view the Iowa challenge as a chance to take another one.
"It's going to test how tough we are," Barnett said.
For more in-depth analysis on these teams, check out our Q&A exchange with our Tennessee sister site:
Time, TV, Announcers: 2:30 p.m. CT on ESPN with Mark Jones, Rod Gilmore, Jessica Mendoza.
The Series: The teams teams have split their previous two meetings.
Betting Line: Vegas Insiders showed Tennessee opening as a 3.5-point favorite. As of Monday, the number remained there at Wynn Vegas. It was 3.0 at the Mirage. The total was listed at 51 and 51.5, depending on the book.
-Tennessee is 3-8 Against The Spread in its last 11 non-conference games.
-Iowa is 5-1 ATS in its last 6 bowl games.
Match-up to Watch: Brace yourselves. Tennessee features a dual-threat quarterback.
Dobbs is less experienced than that quartet but he also might possess more upside than any of them. It could be a long day for Iowa if he realizes his potential in this game.
As was the case most of the season, Iowa must play sound assignment football and contain the edges. The linebackers have to show they've matured. The secondary has to support the first two levels and be able to cover one on one with more resources committed to corralling the quarterback.
Take Note: Iowa is playing its 12th bowl game under Kirk Ferentz (6-5).
Take Note, Take Two: Not a single member of the Tennessee roster has played in a bowl game.
Non-Sports Related: In 1974 Walter Cronkite designated Knoxville, TN as the "Streaking Capital of the World." It was in the spring of that year that an estimated 5,000 people on Cumberland Avenue took their clothes off... stripping on the "strip".
Did You Know?: Dolly Parton received an honorary doctorate degree from Tennessee in 2009.
Did You Also Know?: Black undergraduates were first admitted to UT in 1961. The first black faculty member was appointed in 1964.
Tennessee Wins If… it consistently pressures the Iowa QB.
Iowa Wins If… it contains Dobbs.
Overview: It's difficult to predict what's going to happen in bowl games. They usually pair two relatively evenly-matched teams but the analysis stretches beyond the Xs and Os more at this time of year than any other.
During the regular season, bowl eligible teams are playing for something week in and week out. Some schools are competing for championships while others are fighting just to reach the postseason.
Now, we arrive at contests between teams with unusually long layoffs compared to the rest of the campaign. Some of them are happy to be where they are. Others are not.
In that regard, Tennessee holds an edge here. They're selling a lot of tickets and it will be the first bowl experience for every player on their roster. It's an accomplishment.
For the Hawkeyes, the challenge is greater. They must rebound from losing three of four games in November, which cost them a chance to win a Big Ten West Division title.
I think Iowa will play hard. That wouldn't be any different than the rest of the season. It's not about effort.
It's been about inconsistent execution from the players and an underwhelming performance by the coaches. It's tough to turn on that switch after failing to do it for four months.
Prediction: Tennessee 31, IOWA 24.