Coming off a 5-7 record in 2013, Tennessee opened the 2014 football season with a surprisingly easy 38-7 defeat of Utah State.
Vol fans can only hope the similarities end there. One week after blasting Western Kentucky an overconfident 2009 Vol squad fell flat in Neyland Stadium and suffered a 19-15 Game 2 loss to a mediocre UCLA team.
With the 2014 Vols due to face Arkansas State Saturday at Neyland Stadium in Game 2, there is a possibility that history repeats. That possibility is enhanced by the fact many of Tennessee’s key contributors are freshmen who may be naïve enough to think they’re bullet-proof coming off a 31-point victory.
“I think they think they’re invincible anyway … they’re so young,” wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni told InsideTennessee. “Not much gets to ‘em. When you’re a young group like this you’ve got to keep them focused because who knows who’s talking to them? Who knows what they’re reading?”
Certainly, hearing from fellow students how wonderful they looked in Game 1 can give 18-year-old football players an unrealistic level of confidence. That’s why Tennessee head coach Butch Jones spent the week puncturing inflated egos and working the Vols even harder than usual.
“Coach Jones made it clear in a team meeting with the staff Monday morning early,” defensive line coach Steve Stripling said with a chuckle. “Then we had a long workout Monday afternoon, so the message was loud and clear.”
That message: One game does not a season make. Eleven tests remain, and Tennessee isn’t talented enough to overlook any of them. Game 2 against Arkansas State is especially dangerous because it’s a trap game … falling one week before the Vols visit No. 4 Oklahoma.
“We won one game,” receivers coach Zach Azzanni said. “Let’s not smoke cigars here. We’ve got 11 more to go. If we even think one game down the road past this one, we’re done. It’s got to be ‘What did we do today really well?’ We’re not even thinking about tomorrow. Let’s go win today. That sounds like coach-speak but that is what we are doing here right now.”
Veteran Vols recognize that freshmen tend to ride emotional roller-coasters. That’s why several upperclassmen have tried to keep the rookies from reading too much into the smashing Game 1 victory.
“The only thing we can do is talk to them and tell them to follow our lead and have a one-snap mindset,” senior defensive back Justin Coleman said. “Take everything one game at a time, one play at a time. We have to refocus and get ready to play Arkansas State.”
Naturally, some coaches are better at bringing their troops back to earth than others.
“I’m really good at making sure they stay humble,” Azzanni said, flashing a truly wicked grin. “I have a unique way of making sure they’re not full of themselves. That’s always a guard for 18-year-olds; there’s no doubt about it.”
Based on what he saw in practice this week, Azzanni believes his troops have come down from the Game 1 high and are grounded as Game 2 approaches.
"We put that Utah State game to bed Sunday night. Done,” he said. “They came in here Monday and we’re moving on. We don’t even talk about it. We’re zero and zero right now. That’s how it has to be with a young team.”
Tennessee’s offensive line has been characterized as the team’s weak link for months, so O-line coach Don Mahoney had no trouble getting his troops to put Game 1 behind them and focus fully on Game 2.
“It was easy,” he said. “I just told them, ‘Don’t forget what was said about us early on by quite a few people. Some people still feel that way. We haven’t done a thing, so let’s put our heads down and go to work. Then, at the end of this season, let’s look at our body of work and then we maybe start enjoying some things.’
“This is a pretty easy group to keep grounded,” he added. “But it’s human nature (to get overconfident after a big win), so you’ve got to fight that element a little bit. If you work, you get rewarded.”
Defensive line coach Steve Stripling believes his troops will be focused by Saturday’s kickoff, as well.
“We live by a simple thing we call EAT – Effort … Accountability … Technique,” he said. The first clip of video we look at every week is field goal/extra point block. Are you giving effort like it’s the most important part of the game? Within my group it was good, and we’re building on that. I told ‘em: You put your identity on film. It’s on film now. We’ve got to be a hard-playing unit. There can’t be a week where we’re not playing hard.”
Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian believes the key to getting Vol freshmen to re-focus on Game 2 is recognizing the challenge it poses.
“The key is just understanding how good our opponent is,” Bajakian said. “We’re playing an Arkansas State team that’s won a lot of football games, that’s gone to a lot of bowl games. I don’t think we really face that pressure of taking them too lightly because our guys understand that this team has been very successful.”
Running backs coach Robert Gillespie also believes ASU’s recent success will keep the youthful Vols from becoming complacent.
“I think they’re still too young to have preconceived notions of who’s good and who’s not,” Gillespie said. “There’s a really good opponent when you put on film of Arkansas State, so I don’t think we’ll be down. I think we’ll be up for the challenge.”
If so, Saturday evening should find the Vols sporting a 2-0 record. If not, Saturday evening could feel like 2009 all over again.