For Tennessee’s football program, the arrival of November typically signals the end of Daylight Savings Time and the start of Season-Saving Time.
With a 3-5 record that includes five consecutive losses to Football Bowl Subdivision rivals, the 2014 Vols are mired in mediocrity. Even so, a strong November could salvage the season by producing a winning record and a bowl bid.
“Oh, man, that would be huge,” senior defensive tackle Jordan Williams told InsideTennessee. “That’s our goal – to end with a four-game win streak and take it on to a bowl game.”
Sophomore defensive end Corey Vereen put it this way: “That would mean everything to the team. That’s our focus every single day. It’s on the walls. We focus every single day on getting to that bowl game…. It would be a major step in the program for Coach (Butch) Jones, us, Tennessee, the whole state.”
In addition to a winning record and bowl bid, the Vols’ self-esteem will be on the line this November. Coming off four losing seasons in a row, many players see November as a chance for redemption.
“"A lot of us have pride and a lot of us aren't used to losing,” junior safety Brian Randolph said. “We just want to get things turned around and be the Tennessee that we know we can be. It gives us a lot of motivation. We still have a lot to play for."
This certainly wouldn’t be the first Vol squad to salvage a season by catching fire in November. It has happened so often, in fact, that three decades ago the program adopted the motto: “People remember what you do in November.”
Here are a few examples of seasons saved by memorable Novembers:
1985: Coming off a 6-6 tie with unranked Georgia Tech, Tennessee stood 3-1-2 through October. The Vols swept five November games, then hammered Miami in the Sugar Bowl to finish with a 9-1-2 record and a No. 4 national ranking.
1986: Standing 2-5 and riding a three-game losing streak, Tennessee went 4-0 in November, then dumped Minnesota in the Liberty Bowl to finish 7-5.
1987: A loss at unranked Boston College dropped the Vol record to 5-2-1 but a 4-0 November led to a Peach Bowl victory that capped a 5-0 finish and a No. 14 finish nationally.
1988: Tennessee appeared dead in the water after a 1-6 start but the team regrouped to go 4-0 in November and finish 5-6. That momentum carried over, helping the ’89 Vols go 11-1 with an SEC title and No. 5 national finish.
1994: Standing 4-4 through October, the Vols rallied behind some kid named Peyton Manning to go 3-0 in November, then crush Virginia Tech in the Gator Bowl to close out an 8-4 season that earned a No. 22 national ranking.
2000: A 4-3 start saw the Vols plummet from No. 11 to unranked but a 4-0 November elevated Tennessee to an 8-3 regular-season record, a No. 21 ranking and a Cotton Bowl invitation.
2007: Tennessee limped out of October with a 5-3 record and a No. 24 ranking but a 4-0 sweep of November produced a 9-3 record, a No. 14 ranking and a berth in the SEC Championship Game.
2010: Derek Dooley’s debut team stood 2-6 after an 0-4 October but found its bearings in November, going 4-0 to finish 6-6 and earn a bid to the Music City Bowl.
Tennessee hasn’t reached a bowl game since 2010. The four-year drought feels even longer.
“The seniors, we haven’t been to a bowl game since we’ve been here,” nickel back Justin Coleman said. “Going to a bowl game would mean everything to us. Personally, I think if we get to a bowl game it will change the whole perception of Tennessee.”
It also might change the mood that accompanies five losing records in the past six seasons. A taste of success this season could provide momentum for 2015 and beyond.
“Getting a bowl game is going to carry on for the younger guys,” Coleman said. “They’re going to know how it feels to win and they’re going to want it more.”
Though five years removed from its last postseason appearance, Tennessee has a few redshirt seniors remaining from the 2010 team that faced North Carolina in the Music City Bowl.
“The last time we went to a bowl game was my redshirt year, and that was a long time ago,” offensive tackle Jacob Gilliam told IT. “That was some of the most fun I ever had, and I didn’t even play. I can’t imagine what being out there playing would be like.”
His teammates can’t imagine it, either. Most have never even attended a bowl game.
“Some of the guys ask what it’s like,” Gilliam said. “You explain that you get 15 more practices and there’s certain events you go to. Ultimately, it’s a football game but there’s a whole month leading up to it. You get a lot of maturity and experience from it.”
Gilliam would love to make this a November to remember by winning out to finish 7-5 and earn a bowl bid—not just for himself and the other seniors but for the long-term benefit of the program.
“Obviously, it means a lot to the program because we’re trying to change the culture around here,” he said. “Going to a bowl game is the first step in that.”
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