One of Tennessee’s final spring football practices opened with The Eagles’ stirring rendition of “Life In The Fast Lane” blaring over the loudspeaker. Finding a more appropriate theme song for Team 119 would be just about impossible.
After seven years of low expectations and mediocre records, the Vols suddenly find themselves pegged to contend for the SEC East title and a top-25 ranking in 2015.
The obvious question: Can Tennessee’s players handle life in the fast lane?
The early returns are positive. The Vols walked off the field following their 45-28 beat-down of Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl knowing the bar would be set a lot higher for 2015 than it was in 2014. Most, if not all, welcome the pressure to take the next step.
"I love it,” sophomore tight end Ethan Wolf told InsideTennessee. “I'm always trying to push myself. The coaches are trying to push our team. We really have no limit. The sky is our limit.”
Senior safety Brian Randolph offers similar thoughts.
“We started 2015 at 1-0,” he said. “Finishing with a big win over Iowa in the bowl game was a real confidence booster for us.”
Sophomore safety Evan Berry agrees, noting: “There’s definitely a momentum swing. Coming off a winning record, we’re coming in with a lot of momentum and, hopefully, we can keep that up.”
Momentum has been in short supply since the Vols went 10-4 in 2007. Too many times since then Tennessee took the field knowing it lacked the horses to win. Thanks to some quality recruiting those days are nearly over. Soon the Big Orange will be losing because it couldn’t execute, not because it couldn’t match up.
“We talk about it every day: There will be a point in time where we're going to be the ones beating ourselves,” Wolf said. “We're trying to eliminate that now. That way it doesn't happen in the fall, and we can have our biggest year yet."
Fresh from their first winning season as collegians, Tennessee’s returning players have considerably more pep in their step these days. Even coming off a 7-6 season in 2014, they are convinced the corner has been turned.
“Definitely,” Randolph said. “The camaraderie we have as a team and the togetherness as a (defensive) unit are different. We have a lot of competition on the team but that’s going to be for the team’s betterment. We have a strong backbone on this team with the leaders and the coaches putting us in the right situations, so we’re looking for a successful season.”
Senior offensive tackle Kyler Kerbyson also senses a new day dawning in Tennessee football.
“It’s definitely a different feeling,” he said. “We don’t feel like nobody’s watching us; we feel like every eye’s on us. We’ve got a target on our backs now, and that’s a totally different approach than it was the past three years. A lot of guys haven’t experienced that but it’s good. It’s healthy for you to feel like you’re getting better. That gives everybody confidence.”
The heightened expectations mean added pressure for Team 119 but they also mean added incentive.
“I think we have a lot of confidence as a team, a lot of swagger,” sophomore offensive tackle Brett Kendrick said. “All of the talk about us puts pressure on us to be better, so that’s something we’re working on. You’ve got to compete at a high level every day with everybody coming for us.”
One Vol believes the key to success is more about avoiding complacency than handling pressure.
“Just because we went to a bowl game doesn’t mean we can slack off,” redshirt sophomore receiver Josh Smith said. “We’ve got to build off of that and get even more wins. That’s what’s important.”
Simply put: There is no pressure on losers. If you’re feeling pressure it’s because people expect you to win.
|Tennessee head coach Butch Jones|
“That’s what you want,” head coach Butch Jones said. “You want to be part of a football program that everybody respects. It’s a role reversal for them. That’s why you work hard: To put yourself in those situations. That’s part of the excitement. That’s why you come to the University of Tennessee: You get the opportunity to get Tennessee football back to its rightful place.”
Getting Tennessee back to its rightful place is important … not just for the people in the program but for the people in the stands, as well.
“You’re trying to do things for your brothers on the team but you’ve also got 102,000 fans – and those are just the ones that fit in the stadium,” Wolf said. “You’ve got all these people that are expecting us to do big-time things this year. You don’t want to let your teammates down and you sure don’t want to let the fans down.”
Tennessee has gone 16 years without an SEC title, the longest drought in program history. It has gone seven years without a divisional championship or a national ranking. A program that went 45-5 from 1995-98 has gone 45-54 from 2008-2014.
Based on Vol history, most fans annually expect a team capable of competing with everybody on the schedule, challenging for the SEC title, cracking the national rankings and playing in a quality bowl game. Tennessee’s players understand this.
“That’s our mindset,” junior quarterback Josh Dobbs told InsideTennessee. “That's everyone's mindset when they were recruited to come to Tennessee, so I don't feel like there are raised expectations (for 2015).
“That's always been our expectation. Now we have to go out and execute. We have to put in the work now – the sacrifice, the extra time in the weight room, on the practice field, in the film room – in order to get to our goals and get to where we want to be."
Some folks think this is the year Tennessee gets back in the mix for a divisional title, a national ranking and an upper-level bowl game. Based on the bond he sees developing, one Vol thinks Team 119 is ready to make that move.
“Our camaraderie is really nice,” Kerbyson said. “In years past I felt as if the team was divided … wasn’t as close as it could be. Now I feel like I’m close with everybody here. I’m close to DBs, and I don’t even see them on the practice field, really.
“It’s nice to be a team … a real, real team now.”
Camaraderie is great, but the litmus test arrives this fall: Is Team 119 capable of merging into the fast lane?