Major motivator

No SEC East title. No national ranking. No significant improvement in the won/lost record. So, other than pride, the Tennessee Vols have one thing left to play for:

A bowl bid.

Even after dropping four games in a row by a cumulative score of 109-28, the Big Orange (3-5 overall, 0-5 SEC) has a chance to qualify for postseason action. That would be a plus, even though it means playing in another lower-tier, in-state bowl game such as the Music City in Nashville or the Liberty in Memphis.

Tennessee faced the same situation a year ago, standing 2-6 overall and 0-5 in league play heading into November. The 2010 team dedicated itself to earning a bowl bid, swept its final four games and wound up facing North Carolina in the Music City Bowl.

Knowing the opportunity to extend the season also exists this November could help prevent the 2011 Vols from throwing in the towel.

"It's very motivational," sophomore defensive end Marlon Walls said. "Personally, I feel like we owe it to Ben Martin and Malik (Jackson). They're seniors who have been fighting their hearts out for four or five years, and they deserve it. It's very important, and we're taking it like that.

"I told 'em after the (South Carolina) game that I'm going to keep rolling with 'em. I'm going to keep balling and keep playing hard because those guys deserve it."

Junior defensive back Prentiss Waggner says chasing a bowl bid for the seniors was a major motivator last November.

"It helped us a lot," he recalled. "We knew last year that we wanted to send those seniors out with a bang, send them out on a happy note. Unfortunately, we didn't get the job done in the bowl game (30-27 loss to UNC) but I think at the end of the season the seniors had a pretty fun time."

Securing a bowl bid for the seniors seems to be a high priority for Tennessee's underclassmen this fall, as well.

"It means a lot," sophomore offensive tackle Ja'Wuan James said. "You want to make the season last as long as you can, especially for these guys like Tauren (Poole) who work hard here for four years. This is the last four opportunities he has, so we want to give him a bowl game."

Poole appreciates the sentiment and confirms that a bowl bid is a great going-away gift for a college senior.

"It means a lot to me because I don't want my career at UT to be over very, very fast," Poole said. "I want to have bowl practice and end on the right note. I really don't want to end on a bad note and have that bad taste in my mouth."

A bowl bid is a blessing for the seniors but also for the freshmen. Many of the rookies who saw little or no playing time during the regular season get extra practice repetitions during bowl preparations. Those repetitions can prove invaluable the following season.

"I think it would be great for this team, so we can carry on the fight," Poole said. "It will carry over into next year. We have to fight for every win we have and every win we're going to have."

Walls agrees, noting: "The extra practice is very important. It gives you a chance to develop, especially young guys ... helps 'em out a whole lot."

James recalls that last year's bowl workouts helped a freshman-dominated Vol offensive line jell.

"It's builds a lot of confidence," he said. "When we went to the bowl game last year we got a lot of extra time to prepare for the game and get better. I feel like that's when our O-line excelled — from the last (regular-season) game against Kentucky to the North Carolina game. I feel like we benefited a lot from those extra practices."

Sophomore linebacker Dontavis Sapp was another 2010 freshman who gained considerably from the workouts preceding last year's Music City Bowl.

"It helps you stay focused," he said. "You never know if you're going to play (in the bowl game) or not, so you practice hard to try and earn that playing time."

Waggner admits he would rather have a bowl game to prepare for than a bunch of unwanted free time.

"You're excited to go to a bowl," he said. "At the end of November you really don't have nothing to do — no weight program, no strength and conditioning program. It's always fun to get to a bowl because you don't want to watch other teams play."

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