Overripe Peach Might Taste Just Right

What's that Big Orange fans: Did you say given the foul stench coming from the Outback Bowl in Tampa, Fla., it should be renamed the Outhouse Bowl?

I couldn't agree with you more that the prospect of returning to the Georgia Dome of Horrors to play an unranked team on New Year's Tomorrow, is as attractive as swigging down swamp water in a toast to Chris Leak. But, should it eventuate, as it probably will, the slight might just turn out to be a blessing for a top 10 team in search of respect and redemption.

Sure it would be nice to see the Vols return to a premiere post season venue for the first time since the 1999 Fiesta Bowl, where another two-loss Tennessee team with a top ten ranking made consecutive appearances in the same bowl.

The difference is that was a return trip to the locale at which the Vols captured their first national title in 47 years. The 1999 Vols were probably as talented as the 1998 group with the additions of John Henderson and Albert Haynesworth at tackle, plus the return of Jamal Lewis to the backfield balancing the losses of Al Wilson and Peerless Price. It rose to No. 2 in the BCS standings and was in line to defend it's national crown — despite an early loss at Florida — before suffering an upset at Arkansas. It was a team of future NFL stars from Travis Henry, Cosey Coleman and Lewis on offense to Deon Grant, Shaun Ellis and Henderson on defense. In fact, 11 of UT's starters from that team are currently holding down starting roles in The League.

The 1999 Volunteers were a combined six points from having a perfect season and stretching Tennessee's winning to streak to an incredible 24 straight games. In fact, the Vols had ball in hand and end zone in sight on the final drive in both of those defeats. But it didn't have the same degree of mental toughness or team togetherness that the 1998 squad had and that it demonstrated by staying on track despite losing its most powerful offense weapon in Lewis that season and playing most of the campaign with a makeshift defensive front.

It was as clear a contrast between an underachieving team winning with a rookie QB against a tougher schedule and with less talent than its 1999 counterpart, which sometimes seemed more concerned about the April combines than Saturday's opponent.

Clearly, the 1999 team dropped the torch that night in Tempe, Ariz., as Nebraska's power ground game overwhelmed UT's stop troops for the second time in three years. Ironically, it was that one-sided setback in the 1997 Orange Bowl against the Huskers that UT's players credited with inspiring their effort in 1998.

The Vols lost their most stellar talents from the 1999 squad as Lewis, Ellis, Grant, Coleman and Raynoch Thompson all elected to walk with eligibility remaining. Actually, Lewis and Grant made a full sprint to the NFL Draft and appeared to gain momentum down the stretch of the regular season as Lewis didn't want to be tackled and Grant didn't to have to tackle — anyone. Grant's idea of a physical tackle was to push an opponent out of bounds. And push never came to shove where Deon was concerned.

Lewis was slowed by injuries, but even when he was healthy he didn't run with the abandon he displayed as a true freshman, or before tearing a knee ligament in the Auburn game as a sophomore. You might recall Lewis actually returned to the field after tearing his ligament in 1998 and gained 18 yards on one carry. Only Lewis knows how much he was hurting in 1999, but if he was tentative with his NFL future in mind, he lost a great opportunity to make the most of running behind a line that featured Cosey Coleman, Fred Weary and Chad Clifton.

Tennessee was never quite the same after 1998. The 1999 team didn't live up to expectations. The 2000 team struggled early behind inexperienced QBs and finished flat after being rolled over by another Big 12 team, Kansas State, in the Cotton Bowl. The 2001 team lived on the edge and died by the sword. First in a last minute home loss to Georgia and then in a rematch vs. LSU in the SEC Championship game. The 2002 team overcame a rash of injuries rarely seen even in a game as inherently violent as football, only to suffer its worst bowl game defeat ever vs. Maryland in the Peach Bowl.

That brings us back to this year's team and the impending likelihood it will land in the post season pit known as the Peach Bowl. And play in the same dome of doom housed two of the most devastating setbacks in school history. Barring an 11th-hour reprieve, the Vols will venture into Atlanta for the third straight post season looking for a victory, but even more they are looking for respect, redemption and reinstatement among the nation's elite in the very place they lost they lost all three.

There's something karmic about that and a convincing victory against a hot team would go a long way to setting things right. Sure the Vols are getting the shaft, but there have been times in the past that they probably got a bigger slice of the post season pie than than they deserved because Vol fans traveled so well, and Tennessee always seemed to have more than its fair share of high-profile athletes.

Tennessee hasn't had as many players of that ilk since 1999 which also marked the first year that Big Orange fans stayed away from a bowl in droves. Obviously, UT fans weren't as excited about returning to Tempe in less than a year to see a game that meant very little in the total scheme of things, especially given the distance involved and the fact UT had won the national title the year before.

Maybe the national title spoiled Tennessee faithful because they didn't turn out for the Cotton Bowl in 2000, either, or for the former Citrus Bowl in 2001. Of course, in 2001 most fans had already made reservations for the Rose Bowl and another title shot, so it's understandable they would stay away from oft-visted Orlando with a dream trip to Pasadena setting like the sun on the western horizon. There was much greater difference between the Citrus Bowl and the Rose Bowl in 2001 than the 5,000 miles that separate Orlando from Los Angeles.

The synchronicity is coming full circle with the Vols given a chance at revenge against an opponent from the same conference that inflicted last year's embarrassment, and at the same venue that a nation witnessed Tennessee's 2001 demise. The short drive to Atlanta virtually assures Tennessee fans will return in the masses we're accustomed to seeing, and the Jan. 2 date will give the Vols an opportunity to make a stronger impression on a national audience that's not consuming the New Year's Day TV smorgasbord. A victory would give the Vols an 11-win season and a top ten finish while leaving them hungry for more in 2004.

The final piece of karma concerns the bowls and the BCS, which claims to provide college football with a match-up between the No. 1 and No. 2 teams through a convoluted system that even its creators don't understand nor can explain. How is it again that LSU loses decimal points by beating No. 5 Georgia in Atlanta, Ga.? Excuse me, but you confuse me.

The BCS appears to have lucked out again this year, but if USC and LSU both lose Saturday, the decimal darlings (with apologies to Ricky Rickardo) have got some real splaining to do. Such a scenario would leave a total of ten two-loss teams waiting in line for a chance to slay the Sooners.

By attempting to make one bowl game the end all of bowl games, the BCS has essentially rendered all the other bowl games irrelevant. Consequently we're seeing crowds and TV ratings dwindle more each year. Come the year it can't deliver on its promise, the BCS will become irrelevant. That's when NCAA D-1 football can try something novel like a playoff. It works in every other level of college football — in all college sports for that matter.

For now the bowl misers can go on counting their coins, selling their names to sponsors and cheating college football of a true champion. Even when you get a true No. 1 vs. No. 2 contest the fact its played five weeks after the regular season has concluded should be enough by itself to disqualify the flawed concept.

For now bowls will keep bellying up to the bucks like pigs to a trough. Or to use another analogy: It's like a condemned man gleefully ordering his last meal oblivious to his impending death. That is the BCS's karma, just like a repeat trip to the Peach Bowl might be UT's penance.

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