A 4-5 Tennessee football team needs two victories in its final three games to earn a bowl bid.
Sound familiar? It should. For the second year in a row the Vols need to go 2-1 down the stretch to reach the six-win mark and qualify for post-season eligibility. They came up short in 2013 – losing 55-23 to No. 7 Auburn and 14-10 to unranked Vanderbilt before closing the season with a 27-14 win at Kentucky.
Naturally, barely missing out on a bowl bid left a bad taste in their mouths.
“It sucks; that’s all you can really say,” senior linebacker A.J. Johnson told InsideTennessee. “I ain’t been to one since I’ve been here but my senior year I’m going to a bowl game.”
Junior safety Brian Randolph also has unpleasant memories of last season’s failed bowl bid.
“We remember how we felt, and we don’t want our seniors to go out like that again,” he said. “We’ve got a lot to play for. We’ve got a lot more pride, so we want to go out there and give the Tennessee fans a bowl game.”
Ditto for defensive end Corey Vereen, who said last fall’s failure to secure a postseason bid “sticks with me always. We’ve just got to make plays when it counts. We’ve got to win games, hunker down and do our job.”
Head coach Butch Jones thinks Tennessee got a little complacent late last season, allowing a bowl bid to slip through its fingers.
“The more you win, the more is at stake,” he said. “So what do you do? Does that drive you more or are you satisfied with it? Last year I believe we got satisfied at times.”
Senior offensive tackle Jacob Gilliam concedes as much.
“I think we definitely learned that if you get complacent or overlook a team – if anything like that happens – you’re destined to lose,” he said. “I’m not saying we did that last year but, from a team aspect, I don’t think we took it seriously enough those last couple of games. I think we kind of built ourselves up and put ourselves in good positions but didn’t finish it.”
Randolph agrees that the Vols’ focus last November wasn’t as sharp as it could’ve been.
“I wouldn’t say we were satisfied but maybe we weren’t motivated as much as we should’ve been,” he conceded. “Maybe we didn’t have the big picture in mind of what it means for Tennessee to get back to a bowl game. But we definitely understand it this year and want to get things turned around.”
Tennessee almost always went to a bowl game when linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin was growing up in Clarksville. He admits that a few teammates, unaware of this tradition, seemed to be OK with missing a postseason bid last fall.
“Some guys may have been, just because they weren’t used to getting to a bowl game, making that final push,” he said. “I think we’ve got the guys this year to make that push. There’s a lot more focus. We have the mindset that we’re not going to be denied. That’s how our program goes – win bowl games – and we’re going to get that this year.”
Vol teammates share Maybin’s confidence. They expect to sweep these final three games. One literally bristled when a reporter suggested that needing to win just two of three provides some margin for error.
“I wouldn’t say it’s nice to have it because we don’t want no margin for error,” A.J. Johnson said. “We want to win these last three, win the most games we can, be the best team we can be.”
Nose tackle Danny O’Brien echoed those sentiments, noting: “Thanks to our leaders – A.J. Johnson, Curt Maggitt, Jordan Williams – we’re not satisfied with just two games. We’re trying to win out. We want to finish with a 7-5 record. Obviously, the objective is to get to 5, then 6, then 7 but we’re trying to win out.”
Senior defensive tackle Jordan Williams also believes Tennessee will sweep its final three games to finish 7-5, partly because the Vols are rested following an open-date week.
“The bye week came just in time,” he said. “These last three games are all SEC games, all in the state of Tennessee. We feel like we’re playing all three games at home. We have great momentum going into these last three games. Bodies are fresh and we’re definitely in a way better position than we were last year.”
No Vol is more excited about the prospect of winning these final three games and earning a bowl bid than Gilliam, a fifth-year senior who was a redshirting freshman when Tennessee last played in a bowl game (Dec. 30, 2010 against North Carolina in the Music City Bowl). His career appeared ended when he suffered a torn ACL in the 2014 opener but he has fought back to regain his starting job.
“I’ve only got three games – playing for a fourth – here at Tennessee,” he said, “so it’s one of those things where I think every day, ‘I don’t have much of this left and at one point I had none of it left.’ It’s changing my approach every day. Every day’s a blessing. Every day’s a gift, so I’m accepting it that way.”
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