Coming off a 5-6 season in 2005, Tennessee exceeded expectations in 2006 by going 9-3 in the regular season. Fans were happy. Then the Vols fell flat in the Outback Bowl, losing 20-10 to a mediocre Penn State team. Fans were unhappy, and they remained that way throughout the offseason.
Clearly, an ugly bowl loss can tarnish an otherwise successful season.
"I think it affects you more in recruiting and having a good attitude going into spring practice," senior quarterback Erik Ainge said recently. "Any time you end the season on a loss, you've got eight months before you get to play again. That's tough."
Tennessee's offensive coordinator echoed those sentiments.
"You don't want to end like that," David Cutcliffe admitted. "That's the thing about ending the season ... that one lasts a long time."
The media was generally positive toward the Vols throughout the 2006 regular season. The putrid performance against Penn State brought out the poison pens, however.
"I read all those stories and heard all that stuff," Cutcliffe said of the post-Outback Bowl backlash. "Sometimes that's hurtful but you can't run from what happened. You have to live with it."
Head coach Phillip Fulmer concedes that every season finale leaves an impression that endures for a long time. When that impression is a bad one, it can make for an unpleasant offseason.
"When you finish up the season not as good as you'd like, that's one of those things that lingers with you," he said. "Considering the way we prepared for that (Penn State) game, I was disappointed that we didn't play better."
After being criticized all off-season for their showing vs. the Nittany Lions, the Vols entered 2007 determined to get vindication. They lost two of their first three games, then rallied to win eight of the next nine and claim the SEC East title. Fulmer believes that was a case of turning a negative into a positive.
"You try to turn it and use it as a motivation, which I think our guys did," the head man said. "It was part of the equation that led us to the Eastern Division championship this year."
Even so, junior receiver Josh Briscoe believes fans overreacted a bit following the loss to Penn State. He thought improving from a five-win season in '05 to a nine-win season in '06 was a big deal and that the loss to the Nittany Lions did not detract from that accomplishment.
"The season before we went 5-6 and we underachieved, so going into last year people didn't think we'd win nine ball games," he said. "Getting the (bowl) win was something we thought we could've done as a team. But, as far as tarnishing the season, I don't think it did because we improved from 5-6 to 9-4."
If there is an up-side to last year's Outback Bowl fiasco, it is this: Realizing just how much criticism a poor bowl performance brings should motivate Tennessee's players to perform better when they face Wisconsin Jan. 1 on their return trip to Tampa.
"It motivates me," Cutcliffe said. "It (criticism) was unfairly given. We didn't play very well on offense but that team did some special things a year ago."
Maybe so, but the message is clear: That last impression lasts a long time.