Butch Jones never saw anything quite like what he did Sunday when he announced Tennessee's bowl destination to his team. Unlike last season, when the Vols had to scratch and claw into the bowl picture to earn a TaxSlayer Bowl bid, Jones' squad secured a post-season berth with two games to spare in 2015 and used the final two regular season matchups to prove they were worthy of one of the better bowl destinations. Ending the season on a five-game win streak coupled with a fan base that travels extremely well propelled the team into a New Year's Day date with No. 13 Northwestern in the Outback Bowl.
When the third-year Tennessee coach let his team know it would be headed to Florida, this time trading in last year's taxes for some bloomin' onions, they lit the locker room up with excitement.
"It's been a different mentality," Jones said. "Our kids knew what was at stake towrad the tail end of the season. They knew they were fighting for relevance in terms of bowl games, and they knew that. This is probably the most questions and the most excitement that I've seen in a footbal team in terms of where we're going."
But the pomp and cirumstance of a bowl game isn't the only benefit to earning a post-season bid. The 15 practices Tennessee receives to prepare for its opponent are vital both to the on-field work the team needs after experiencing such a long layoff and in the strength and conditioning department.
"They are very, very big, not just on the field, but in the strength and conditioning area, having those extra days to get in the weight room," Jones said. "I think (it helps) just the chemistry of your football team as well. There's a lot that goes into bowl preparation, but first and foremost, is doing whatever it takes to win the bowl game. In our preparation and understanding the importance, you try to get most of your work done here (in Knoxville) before you venture to the bowl site"
The bowl season always brings about speculation on staff movement across the country, and Tennessee isn't absolved from those rumors and reports. USA Today's Dan Wolken reported that Tennessee wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator Zach Azzanni could be linked to the new offensive coordinator opening at Maryland, and published reports of defensive backs coach Willie Martinez re-joining his former college roomate Mark Richt at Miami have also surfaced in recent weeks.
Butch Jones didn't mention any specific reports, but told reporters Monday that he takes the inquiries as compliments to what he and his staff have accomplished at Tennessee so far.
"It's not my job to speculate on other programs, job openings and all that, so I'll just say this: I deem it when institutions, if they do want to inquire about our coaches, that is a compliment," Jones said. "That's a compliment to what we're building here. We have very good football coaches and even better individuals. People understand around the country what we've done here in a very short period of time and how far we've come. It garners notice across the country, but in terms of the speculation, that's not my place."
When addressing the specific reports surrounding Azzanni's potential departure to land with new Maryland coach and former Michigan defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin, Jones played coy.
"If they can make themselves better in the profession and for their familes, I'm very, very supportive," he said. "But again, there's a lot of speculation out there and anybody can guess and be right. That's the thing is, if there are reports, if there are tweets, stand behind what you say. Zach is a very, very gifted football coach, along with all of our coaches. I expect people to come after our coaches. That's what we want ... That means we're doing great things."
For the second consecutive season, Tennessee is headed down to Florida for a January bowl game against a Big 10 opponent. How will that impact Tennessee on the recruiting front? According to the coach who's hauled in two straight back-to-back top five recruiting classes, the trip doesn't just serve as a bow on the season.
"When you follow up with another January bowl game in Florida, it's big," Jones said. "It's progress. Again, it points toward the progress that we're making here. It points toward a lot of things, so it is a great selling point ... It is great for recruiting and the excitement that it brings along. Playing at the noon slot is great as well. Any time you can go to a great bowl game like the Outback Bowl, it shows the progress that you're making."