It happens all the time: A football team shows the heart of a lion in clawing its way to a bowl bid, then — satisfied with accomplishing the goal — performs like a lamb in a humbling postseason loss.
Lane Kiffin’s 2009 Tennessee Vols were just such a team. They won four of their last five games to finish 7-5 and earn a Chick fil-A Bowl bid, then laid an egg against Virginia Tech in Atlanta, suffering a humiliating 37-14 beat-down.
Five years later Butch Jones’ 2014 Vols are facing a similar situation: All season they expressed a goal of earning a bowl bid. Now that the goal has been accomplished with a berth opposite Iowa in the Jan. 2 TaxSlayer Bowl, what is to stop them from being satisfied and complacent?
“There’s nobody satisfied,” senior defensive tackle Jordan Williams assured InsideTennessee. “Coach Jones made sure of that, man. He said ‘It’s one thing to get to a bowl game – that’s great – but it’s another thing to win it.’ We’ve got to be ready to go and take this win.”
Sophomore linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin says the underclassmen view the bowl game as another step in Tennessee’s return to national relevance.
“We have a lot of players returning next year, so I feel like everyone has the mindset that there’s no turning around,” he said. “The only way we can go is up from right here. Hopefully, next year we’ll be in Atlanta playing (for the SEC title) in bigger games and bigger situations.”
Junior offensive tackle Kyler Kerbyson acknowledges a feeling of satisfaction but still believes the Vols will generate plenty of fire Jan. 2 in Jacksonville.
“It’s hard not to be satisfied with that because that was our goal – to be in a bowl game,” he conceded. “But we look it as we didn’t do it in the prettiest way. It wasn’t a nine-win or 10-win season. It was a six-win season. We just got there. That keeps us level-headed and humble going in.”
Reaching their goal of a bowl invitation is a big deal, and the Vols are justified in relishing that accomplishment. Now they must find a new motivation, which shouldn’t be difficult: Coming off consecutive seasons of 6-7, 5-7, 5-7 and 5-7, Tennessee hasn’t posted a winning record in four years. A bowl loss will close the 2014 season at 6-7 and extend the string of losing records to five. Conversely, a bowl win means a 7-6 finish and a winning record to celebrate all offseason.
Reeves-Maybin shrugged when this was mentioned to him.
“I hadn’t even thought about that,” he said. “We’re just focusing on Iowa. I think we’ll be able to get the job done because we’re just going to prepare like it’s any other week.”
Kerbyson, by contrast, thinks the difference between 7-6 and 6-7 provides great incentive.
“It’s huge,” he said, “and it gives us so much momentum going into the next year. We had all of these sellout crowds this year, and everybody was excited about us. I can only imagine next year how big the hype will be. It’ll also be huge in recruiting – getting freshman guys in here, new and exciting players.”
Williams believes a 7-6 record would show the corner has been turned, and he has no doubt the Big Orange will come through and achieve that goal on Jan. 2.
“It’s going to be great,” he said. “I keep thinking about it and preparing for it. I don’t think it’s going to be hard because everybody’s emotions are so high right now. Everybody’s pushing. There’s no down side. I think Iowa’s been to a bunch of bowl games, so it’s nothing new to them. It’s brand new to us, so we’re just taking it all in and working hard.”
Williams set for career finale
Butch speaks after Sunday's practice