Vols relish sleeper role

As Tennessee football fans are acutely aware, the Vols tend to underachieve when they are highly touted and tend to overachieve when they are downgraded.

If that trend continues, 2007 ought to be a pretty good year. Most preseason publications are picking the Big Orange third in the SEC East. Very few analysts project the Vols as a potential league champion or a top-10 national finisher.

The response of UT players: Don't get mad, get motivated. They view the paltry projections as one more reason to get fired up about 2007.

"I think we're going to surprise a lot of people," senior defensive tackle J.T. Mapu says. "We've got a young team, so a lot of people aren't giving us too much of a chance. I think that's great because we'll work from the bottom up."

Minus Peyton Manning, Marcus Nash, Leonard Little, Terry Fair and some other standout players from the 1997 team, Tennessee was supposed to fall flat in 1998. Instead, the Vols won the national title. With virtually everyone back from that team, they were supposed to run the table in '99. Instead, they went 9-3.

With freshmen sharing the quarterback duties, Tennessee was supposed to struggle in 2004. Instead, the Vols won the SEC East. A year later, ranked No. 3 nationally in preseason, they limped home 5-6.

Perhaps Tennessee struggles with the pressure of being a heavy favorite. Perhaps the Vols are more comfortable in the role of underdog.

Whatever the explanation might be, the Vols are smiling as 2007 approaches. Rather than lowering their expectation level, they find that the preseason forecasts are raising their incentive level.

"Definitely," senior end Xavier Mitchell says. "It's a motivation. We're sleepers. I don't think anyone's expecting us to come out of the shadows and rise to the top."

No one else believes in the Vols but they apparently believe in themselves. In the end, that might carry them pretty far.

"We all have this confidence in each other, and that's the biggest improvement I see in the team," Mitchell notes. "We all can count on each other a lot more this year, and now we're looking forward to getting out there and showing it."

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