Down in the Valley

If you doubt that old saying "Absence makes the heart grow fonder," just ask the Tennessee Football Vols what it means to be back in post-season action after sitting out the bowl season last year.

Sure, a chance to play in the BCS Championship Game would've been fantastic. A Sugar Bowl berth for winning the Southeastern Conference title would've been terrific. Heck, a spot in any of the BCS bowls would've been nice. Even though the Vols fell short of those goals, they feel elated to be playing in a New Year's bowl (Outback) in a warm-weather climate (Tampa) against a name opponent (Penn State).

Why? Because, one year removed from a 5-6 record and no bowl invitation, a 9-3 record and an Outback bid represent significant progress.

As Vol head coach Phillip Fulmer so succinctly put it: "Anytime you experience a valley, you appreciate the peaks much, much more."

His players heartily agree. Junior defensive end Xavier Mitchell says last year's losing record hurt. So did watching post-season action, rather than participating in it. Thus, securing a winning record and a bowl bid in 2006 were top priorities.

"It's very important after a devastating season like last year," Mitchell said. "We know what that feeling's like – to have that taste in your mouth – and we don't ever want to have that again. We're taking this opportunity, and we want to make the best of it.

"It's very important for the team this year and for next year."

Although he got to spend last Christmas and New Year's with friends and family members back in Russellville, Ala., senior offensive tackle Arron Sears is thankful to be spending the 2006-07 holiday season with his Vol teammates in Tampa.

"We're very excited, especially after going 5-6 last year and everybody being home for Christmas," he said. "It's good to be home and see your family but nobody likes to be home around this time."

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