Florida only to undermine the impact of that victory by losing the next week
to LSU in the SEC Championship game. Despite knocking out the Tigers
starting quarterback (Rohan Davey) and tailback (LaBrandon Toefield) in the
first half, the Vols went flat and couldn't hold a lead against a LSU team
that was severely weakened, a team UT had beaten at full strength earlier in
As a result, Tennessee lost out on an opportunity to play in the national
title game, but responded well with a blowout victory over Michigan in the
first meeting between the high-profile football programs. The Vols failure
to grab the brass ring in 2001 served as the inspiration for 2002 and gave
rise to the slogan "Unfinished Business."
Ironically that slogan suited Florida more than Tennessee last Saturday as
the Gators took care of business against the Vols and avenged last season's
setback. In the process they dealt a serious blow to UT's ambitious aims for
2002. In fact the fading scream heard Sunday in Big Orange Country was the
Vols free fall from the top 10.
Shellshocked from the shellacking, the Vols are sorting through the wreckage
of their shattered dreams and starting over three games into the season.
Tennessee has the talent to turn things around. What they need is better
team chemistry, more discipline and stronger mental toughness.
Goals are great to have but the primary goal before any season has to be to
reach your potential by improving every game. A head coach needs to see the
big picture, but the team needs to be very shortsighted when it comes to
meeting the challenges of a 12-game season.
We don't have to go too far back in time to find excellent examples of the
issue at hand. I refer to this as a tale of two seasons: In 1998 Tennessee
was expected to have a rebuilding year with the incomparable Peyton Manning
gone to the NFL. The Vols came out of the gate with a come-from-behind win
over Syracuse in the season opener at the Carrier Dome.
They follow that with the only home victory over a higher ranked and
superior Florida in the last 10 years. They went on the road and defeated
Auburn and Georgia on consecutive weeks, the victory in Athens coming after
losing it biggest star running back Jamal Lewis against Auburn.
Tennessee came home to knock off archrival Alabama for the fourth time in a
row. They met undefeated Arkansas in game No. 9 and scored one of the most
improbable and memorable victories in Tennessee history. They appeared in
peak form in pounding traditional rivals Kentucky and Vanderbilt by a
combined 100 to 21. Then they rallied to pull out a victory in the SEC
Championship game against Mississippi State 17-10 before winning the
national championship over Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl.
It was a team that never seemed to get too far ahead of itself and always
seemed to find a way to win. It seemed impervious to pressure and played
with unbridled passion.
The next year the Vols were defending the national championship and the
focus seemed to shift to the end of the season and the opportunity to defend
its crown. But where the 1998 team won three tough road contests and close
home games to Arkansas and Florida, the 1999 team couldn't win the close
games on the road. In 1998 Tennessee beat Florida by 3 points in overtime
and defeated Arkansas 28-24. The 1999 team lost to Florida by two points and
was beaten by Arkansas 28-24.
That was the difference in going undefeated and winning the national
championship in the Fiesta Bowl and losing two games and losing a
consolation game in the Fiesta Bowl (against Nebraska).
The point is that while the 1998 team had less talent than the 1999 team, it
didn't have the chemistry, it didn't face the adversity and it didn't have
the mental toughness. Instead it had the burden of expectations to deal with
and it's goal of defending the national title made it difficult to focus on
each step along the way.
Now I'm going to present a theory that might sound a little an outlandish.
Let me preface this conjecture by saying I think it's hard enough for a
qualified team of psychoanalysts to correctly diagnose the problems of one
person, to say nothing prescribing a cure. So I'm not going to be so
arrogant to pretend an unqualified person could correctly diagnose an entire
team. But I do know Tennessee fans and I believe the Vols often reflect the
mood of its fans.
It seemed like the excitement last week prior to the Florida game among Big
Orange faithful was dulled by Tennessee's win in Gainesville, the loss of
Steve Spurrier from the equation and the Gators' big defeat at the hands of
Similarly last year it seemed that fans were excited at the prospect of
playing Florida in December instead of September, the opportunity to win in
the Swamp for the first time in 30 years and capture the SEC East Division
title in the process. UT came out and played an inspired game beating
After the victory over Florida, the fans' focus seemed to shift to the Rose
Bowl instead of the SEC Championship against LSU. Similarly the Vols played
unfocused against LSU and never reached Pasadena.
Earlier in the 2001 campaign against a Georgia team Tennessee had beaten 9
of the last 10 seasons, the fans seemed to expect a victory over the
Bulldogs and the players went through the motions, especially on special
teams, losing in an upset.
When Tennessee's pride has been hurt as was the case Saturday, the fans
often vent on radio talk shows, message boards and in man on the street
interviews. Likewise the UT players get plenty of the same feedback from
personal encounters with fans. That's why you can expect the Vols to come
back with a vengeance. Of course a blowout over Rutgers isn't going to
restore that lost pride, but it could be the catalyst for a transformation
Most of the talk before this season among fans centered around the Miami
game in Knoxville. That's one reason the Vols will stand a chance of pulling
the upset if they take care of business.
And there's plenty of business to take care of. Arkansas is much improved
(in fact the Razorbacks are rated No. 3 in the Scripps-Howard poll). Georgia
has beaten the Vols two in a row and this year's game is in Athens. The
Alabama game is always big and there's added incentive with the animosity
that has been building in the offseason between Crimson Tide and Vol
There's still a lot for Tennessee to play for this season and there's a lot
for Tennessee fans to be excited about.