Handling prosperity

Tennessee's football players proved in September and October they can handle failure. Even as they lost six of their first eight games they continued to work hard in practice and compete hard in games.

Now you wonder: Can they handle success?

Coming off consecutive blowout wins by scores of 50-14 against Memphis and 52-14 against Ole Miss, the resurgent Vols suddenly find themselves with a 4-6 record and a head of steam heading into Saturday night's game at Vanderbilt.

Whether the players can handle prosperity as competently as they handled mediocrity remains to be seen. For what it's worth, the Vols think they're operating on a level of confidence that falls well shy of arrogance.

"Guys are walking around with their heads high, talking about what bowl game we're going to go to," senior guard Jarrod Shaw said. "Still, we want to get back out on the practice field and work hard so we can win again Saturday. That's our mentality now: We want to practice hard, so we can have the same result we had this past Saturday."

Asked how the Vols are dealing with two weeks of success after eight weeks of mostly failure, Shaw replied, "The same way. That comes back to leadership. We have to come out and have good practices, grind it out so we can have a victory on Saturday."

Head coach Derek Dooley emphasizes viewing the process and not the result. He wants the Vols focused on playing good football rather than the numbers on the scoreboard. When you've outscored your last two opponents a combined 102-28, though, that's easier said than done.

"It's hard, man," Shaw said. "But if you do your job for 60 minutes you shouldn't have to worry about results. That should take care of itself."

Junior tailback Tauren Poole added an amen to that. He says focusing on the process is even more difficult when the Vols know two more wins will qualify them for a bowl bid.

"It's tough. It's tough because we all want to make a bowl game," he said. "That's been the talk since November started ... we want to win out, we want to go to a bowl game. But we just have to focus on one game at a time."

Making the task facing the Vols Saturday at Vanderbilt even tougher is the fact the Commodores are 2-8 and riding a five-game losing streak. This would be an easy opponent to overlook but Poole says that won't happen ... probably.

"We know we have to play our best football ... I HOPE we know," he said. "I know we have to play our best football in order to win these last two games. We're focused on Vanderbilt, and we're getting ready to play some good football."

Asked what he can do to keep the younger Vols from getting too confident on the heels of recent successes, Poole replied: "I just have to make them realize that nothing's guaranteed. A win is not guaranteed, even though we may go into the game favored to win. That doesn't mean we're going to win.

"We have to work hard. We saw earlier in the season that nothing's guaranteed. We almost lost to UAB; we beat them in overtime. The game should've been over but it wasn't. We have to play each and every down like it's our last, and play to win."

With his team riding its first two-game winning streak of the year, Dooley doesn't know exactly what to expect from his youthful squad.

"I'm just hoping they stay on the even-keel that they've stayed on the last month," he said. "I've been pleased with them. Since the open date, I really feel like there's been a lot of good progress. And that's why after the Alabama game (a 41-10 loss) I wasn't as discouraged as probably everybody expected me to be, even though the score was terrible. I just saw some things. I saw some signs that, OK, this is good.

"And then South Carolina, even more (good signs were evident). Then it finally came together the Memphis game and last week. What I'm hoping is they continue that upward climb in improvement. That's not easy to do."

Had Tennessee won its last two games by modest margins, complacency wouldn't be much of a worry for the Vols. The smashing nature of the two victories, however, creates a greater opportunity for overconfidence.

"All of a sudden, the human nature is complacency," Dooley said. "Like, OK, we're good.

"We're far from it."


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