Curing the bowl blues

Tennessee achieved 10 wins and a No. 6 national ranking during the 2003 regular season, yet the team was viewed as an underachiever following a lackluster 27-14 Peach Bowl loss to Clemson.

A year earlier, the 2002 Vols lost three games while first-team quarterback Casey Clausen was injured, but still finished a respectable 8-4. When they lost 30-3 to Maryland in the Peach Bowl, however, they left a bitter taste in fans' mouths that endured the entire offseason.

Clearly, a slipshod showing at bowl time can leave a lasting stain on an otherwise positive season. That's why the 2004 Vols need to play well against Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 1. They're viewed in a positive light after overcoming inexperience at quarterback and cornerback, plus a glut of injuries in the offensive line to go 9-3 and win the SEC East. If they stink up the joint against A&M, however, they'll be remembered for their January failure instead of their regular-season successes.

Tailback Gerald Riggs says the Vols view this Cotton Bowl game as a real proving ground.

''We're tired of going to bowl games and losing, so we definitely want to win,'' he said. ''We've still got something to prove. Tennessee's been known to be pretty good, but once they step out of conference or play a bowl game they kinda shoot themselves in the foot. We want to get that tag off of us.

''We're focused and ready to go. I think everybody knows what we have at stake and how important this game is.''

Asked if the Vols are approaching this game with more determination than their two previous bowl games, Riggs nodded.

''Yeah,'' he said. ''We've got that tag by our names right now -- Can't win a bowl game -- and that's something we don't want. We fought so hard all year long to prove people wrong. Nobody expected us to play for an SEC title. Now we've got another thing to prove -- that when we step out into one of these bowl games we can get the job done. That's what we've got in our minds now.''

Guard Rob Smith says the memory of back-to-back Peach Bowl setbacks should provide extra motivation this bowl season.

''For me, it has,'' he said. ''You'd think it would be for everybody. I hope so, because those last two games were embarrassing. You want to end the season on a good note, so the fans aren't all bummed out the whole offseason.''

Senior linebacker/captain Kevin Burnett concedes that the offseason seems even longer after a bowl loss. Fans do a lot of complaining when their freshest memory is a bad one.

''If you lose the last game, you're going to hear about it for eight months,'' Burnett said. ''If we win, it's quiet. But either way it goes, I won't be here to hear it.''

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