Clearly, we're not talking about unbridled fear which can be debilitating, if not immobilizing. Nor is this a reference to fear of opponents, although a significant degree of respect is advisable. Rather, it's a healthy fear of losing that should be a key component in a championship team's psychological profile. Fear of losing keeps a team frosty and focused, while secure in the knowledge that knocking off an opponent is dependent upon executing a game plan play-by-play-by-play.
Title contenders are virtually guaranteed to face an opponent every week that is emotionally capable of pulling off an upset. It goes with the territory and it gets to be a grind. Since it's impossible for a title contender to always play at an emotional peak, it's imperative it always plays with a sharp focus. Fear is another way to tap into the adrenals which can provide the emotional energy needed to repel a fired-up foe.
Entering the 2002 campaign, Tennessee was ranked among the nation's top five teams in preseason polls, after coming off an 11-2 record that included a route of Michigan in the Citrus Bowl. A loss to LSU in the SEC Championship game cost the Vols a Rose Bowl bid and a chance to play for the national title. That in turn gave rise to the battle cry of "Unfinished Business."
The Vols never finished business in 2002. In fact, they almost went out of business in an injury-plagued season that featured home blowouts vs. Florida, Alabama and Miami as well as the worst bowl loss in school history as Tennessee's 8-5 record was the worst in the highly successful Phillip Fulmer Era.
I bring up this bit of old business because the similarities between 2002 and 2005 to this point are undeniable. The Vols went 10-3 last season, including an 11-point loss in the SEC title tilt to a team the Vols were playing for a second time. UT recovered from that defeat to blow out Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl, causing expectations for 2005 to skyrocket. Anything short of an SEC title will be a disappointment.
The Vols have been able to avoid major injuries so far and aren't likely to ever be hit as hard in that respect as they were in 2002. However, before UT was ever overwhelmed by health issues that season it was a team that appeared unfocused and inconsistent. It suffered a rash of early turnovers, a plethora of costly penalties and an array of missed assignments.
Another similarity between the 2001 and 2004 Tennessee squads is late comebacks and close calls. In 2001, UT beat Kentucky 38-35, In 2004, it beat the Wildcats 37-31. In 2001, the Vols edged Florida 34-32. In 2004, they edged the Gators 30-28. In 2001, the Vols lost to Georgia at home by two points while in 2004 they lost at home to Notre Dame by four points. In 2001 the Vols rallied late to defeat Alabama on the road. In 2004, they rallied in the fourth quarter to knock off Ole MIss in Oxford.
This rehash isn't a suggestion that history will repeat itself this season, instead, it's an attempt to make a case that history has taught the Vols a vital lesson. The holdovers from that 2002 squad, like Kevin Simon and Jason Allen, are senior captains today and will not let their teammates forget the importance of focus, or the devastation that can be wrought by losing it.
Game one is an opportunity to set the tone for the 2005 season and the Vols should come out with ample energy and motivation. Overall this team has more depth than it's 2002 counterpart and better skill players. This year's edition of UT football returns all of its defensive front four while the 2002 team had to replace it's entire front four following the departures of John Henderson and Albert Haynesworth for NFL stardom and the loss of defensive end Constantine Ritzmann to knee surgery in the final preseason practice. Tennessee's offensive line is bigger and deeper than it was in 2002 and the offense is more powerful.
That will be important against a UAB team that allowed Tulane and Hawaii to score 59 points last season and surrendered 45 to South Florida. True, the Blazers have a big, talented quarterback, but the running game is suspect and it will be extremely difficult to beat UT's defense with a one-dimensional attack. Plus, in their only major road test of 2004, the Blazers lost to Florida State 34-7.
UAB would need a lot of help from Tennessee to pull an upset Saturday and the Vols will not likely give it. They learned the hard way in 2002 that you can't win a championship every Saturday but you can play like a champion every Saturday.
This year, they may learn that championships aren't won one game at a time as much as they are won one play at a time. You can't overlook any opponent if you truly fear failure. And if your focus is on the journey the destination will take care of itself.