Antone Davis says it can, and he should know. Davis, director of the Vol For Life program, was the starting right tackle for a Vol squad that began the 1988 season 0-6. The team pushed through the adversity to win its last five games, setting the stage for a spectacular season in '89.
The '88 Vols refused to fold when times were tough, and Davis says the 2013 Vols need to do the same.
"It's extremely important to continue to believe in yourself," he said. "When you start out 0-6 a lot of people have a lot to say about every little thing you do. We used to use the phrase ‘Circle the wagons.' Coach (John) Majors and Coach (Phillip) Fulmer wanted to make sure we protect the people inside the wagons. It's important to stay together, continue to believe in yourselves and continue to work the fundamentals."
Perhaps the 2013 Vols will "circle the wagons" and show the same kind of resilience the '88 Vols did. The big finish in 1988 built momentum that provided a springboard for the program, paving the way for the 1989 team to go 11-1.
"It was huge," Davis recalled. "One of the things that took place that offseason was 100-percent participation in the offseason workout program. That's commonplace now but it wasn't back then. A lot of guys usually went home during the offseason."
Determined to avoid another losing season, the '89 Vols pushed themselves and policed themselves.
"We didn't have any coaches around but we didn't need coaches around to monitor us," Davis recalled. "It was like everybody looked at each other and said, ‘We know what we have to do, and it starts now. All of those teams that beat us this year … if we beat ‘em in the winter, beat em' in the spring, beat ‘em in the summer, then we'll beat ‘em in the fall.' That's how we did it."
Of course, work without confidence, like confidence without work, does not win football games. The '88 Vols kept working until they tasted success. Then they developed the confidence to continue winning, ultimately sweeping their last five games. Davis thinks a 3-0 finish to the 2013 regular season could provide a similar boost to Tennessee's program.
"We've had our share of losing," he said. "We keep saying it's not who we are but you've got to crawl before you can walk. If we get back to that (bowl participation), then build from that, it will be great for the players' confidence
Tennessee's seniors say they're determined to win out and salvage the 2013 season, much as their Vol predecessors salvaged the 1988 season.
"I think it would mean a lot," defensive end Jacques Smith said. "It's definitely one of our team goals. We have a team goal of a bowl game, and that's something we want to get established here because Tennessee is one of the most prestigious universities in the country, and it's supposed to be in a bowl. Once we get all of the corrections made on the practice field this week I think we'll have a definite opportunity to be in one."
Defensive tackle Daniel Hood agrees that the 2013 Vols have a golden opportunity these next three games.
"November is the most important month to us, especially right now," he said. "We train all offseason to get to this point, so we can finish stronger than we have in the past. It's time to put on film what we've worked for all year. It means everything to win. Any game is meaningful."
Kicker Michael Palardy said a big finish in November is "really important," adding: "We've got to take it one game at a time – cross each bridge as we get to it – but I think we're taking steps in the right direction.
"We know there's a lot to lose. We know the stakes but we're ready to handle that beast, one game at a time."