If I were Phillip Fulmer, I'd send a case of fine wine to Las Vegas to be distributed among the oddsmakers who installed Tennessee as a three-point underdog in Saturday's Cotton Bowl game.
The Vols have two more wins than Texas A&M (9 vs. 7) and a better national ranking (No. 15 vs. No. 22), yet the Aggies are favored. That should put a chip on the shoulders of UT's players ... and we all know how Tennessee plays with a chip on its shoulder.
The 1998 Vols, projected for mediocrity in preseason, went 13-0 and won the national title by playing the entire season with a chip on their collective shoulders. Heck, they were even underdogs in the Fiesta Bowl Game against Florida State, despite being ranked No. 1.
Tennessee played with a chip on its shoulder as an underdog at Florida in 2001, at Miami in 2003 and at Georgia in 2004 -- winning each time. Tell the Vols they should win, and they sometimes go in the tank. Tell them they're going to lose, though, and they'll fight like rabid dogs to prove you wrong.
That's not the only reason the Big Orange will bag the Aggies Saturday, however.
Maybe you noticed that Fulmer has imposed a curfew on his team this week. He also had his team scrimmaging -- something he usually disdains during bowl preparations. Obviously, after back-to-back Peach Bowl humiliations, the head man is emphasizing focus more than fun on this bowl trip. That should result in a crisper effort than we've seen in UT's recent bowl outings.
I've talked to several players recently, and they seem genuinely embarrassed by their lackluster bowl performances the past two years. They also seem tired of hearing fans bitch and gripe about the two Peach Bowl debacles. I think the Vols are going to lay it on the line Saturday, and I think that's bad news for A&M.
I look for first-team QB Rick Clausen to have a good game. He guided Tennessee to 38 points in Game 10 against Vanderbilt, 37 points in Game 11 against Kentucky and 28 points against an Auburn defense ranked No. 1 nationally in the SEC Championship Game. Clausen has the Vol attack clicking, and I don't think A&M can stop the momentum.
If Clausen struggles, the return of backup quarterback Brent Schaeffer could be a big plus for Tennessee. Some folks suggest he'll have little impact because he hasn't practiced a lot since fracturing his collarbone in Game 8. I beg to differ. Schaeffer beats you with his athleticism, not precise timing in the passing game. His strengths are his ability to ad-lib, to turn broken plays into big plays, to scramble around until the defense breaks down, then make something happen with his arm or his legs. Those abilities haven't eroded during his layoff, which is why I look for him to have a significant impact on the Texas A&M game.
Whereas UT's offense is rolling lately, Tennessee's defense has played miserably the past three games -- surrendering 33 points to Vandy, 31 to Kentucky and 38 to Auburn. Knowing John Chavis the way I do, I'm sure he's spent the past month plugging the leaks in the stop unit. Mark it down: The Vol defense we'll see Saturday will scarcely resemble the porous unit we saw against Vandy, UK and Auburn.
Bottom line: Tennessee's offense is on a roll, the defense is due a bounce-back game and the whole team is determined to avert another bowl loss. When oddsmakers slighted the Vols by making them underdogs, that just provided one more reason to choose the Big Orange.
My pick: Tennessee 31, Texas A&M 24
Aggies have Advantages
JEFFERY STEWART This is supposed to be the bowl to blow away ghosts of New Year's past for the Tennessee Volunteers, who have lost four of their last five postseason appearances and six of seven if you count the two SEC championship games lost in 2001 and 2004.
It should also be pointed out that Tennessee didn't play any of those defeats closer than 10 points and were totally dominated by Nebraska in the 1999 Fiesta Bowl, Kansas State in the 2000 Cotton Bowl, Maryland in the 2002 Peach Bowl and Clemson in an Atlanta encore last year.
Tired of enduring long offseasons filled with cracks, complaints, criticism, recrimination, Tennessee is now poised to wipe out a half decade of frustration and embarrassment by toppling Texas A&M come Saturday AM.
Sure it's a plausible theory but there's just one hitch: Haven't we heard all of this before? Wasn't last year supposed to bring redemption in the very place UT was twice throttled in postseason encounters, first by LSU and then by Maryland. It didn't happen despite UT having a world of incentive. Neither did the Vols make things right by upsetting Auburn earlier this month in the Georgia Doom where UT's losing streak now stands at four straight.
But this is different some will argue because the Vols are underdogs and nothing makes UT's prideful pack more peeved than to be picked to loss. It's true Tennessee has seen its share of success as road dogs in recent years but not as postseason underdogs. In fact, the Vols have failed to cover the last two times they were picked to lose a bowl game.
They were one-point underdogs against Maryland and instead lost by 27. They were three-point underdogs against Kansas State in the 2000 Cotton Bowl and they lost by 14. Interestingly, the oddsmakers have installed Texas A&M as three-point favorites on Saturday.
So why should we believe this time is different? Is it because practices have been harder and curfews more strict? Some suggest Tennessee will play better because it has something to prove to the college football world. Of course, that was also the plot in last season's Peach Bowl which included a subplot that said: UT wanted to show the Outback Bowl that it made a big mistake by passing the Vols over for Florida. Neither, plot panned out as Tennessee, which was favored by four points, lost to Clemson by 13.
I don't discount the fact Tennessee has something to prove in this game, but one can't help but wonder if the Vols have a lot more to prove to themselves than they have to prove to the rest of the country. Could it be that along with the anger and frustration that is fermenting in their minds there is also a seed of nagging self-doubt? Could it be along with the passion to win there is even more pressure to prevail? For sure, pressure isn't conducive to peak performance especially for a team with so much youth.
By contrast, Texas A&M has practically no pressure. This is the first bowl appearance for the Aggies since 2001 and the pressure is off by just getting to the game. They also have the home-field advantage, playing before a sellout crowd in their home state.
Moreover, Tennessee hasn't played particularly well vs. Big 12 teams. The Vols lost to Nebraska by 25 points in the 1997 Orange Bowl and again to the Cornhuskers by 10 in the 1999 Fiesta Bowl. The next year they lost to K-State by 14 in the Cotton Bowl. In each of those games UT was beaten at the line of scrimmage and faded badly down the stretch. In fact, the last time the Vols beat a current Big 12 Conference opponent in a bowl game was in 1957 when they topped A&M 3-0 in the Gator Bowl. UT has lost seven straight bowl games to Big 12 teams.
This year's A&M squad is a typical Big 12 power team that plays physical defense and tests opponents with a variety of sets and looks on offense. The Aggies should benefit from having Dennis Franchione's experience coaching against UT when he was at Alabama in 2001 and 2002. A&M also gives Tennessee some match-up problems and Franchione is very good at maximizing such advantages.
On top of all this, when was the last time you recall Tennessee playing well in a morning game? When you think of one drop me a line because I can't.
Add it all up and this doesn't look good for the Volunteers. Still, I would love to be proven wrong.