Up for Outback?

In case you've forgotten, the Tennessee Vols went 5-6 in 2005, posting their first losing season and their first non-bowl season since 1988. So, when the team went 9-3 in 2006 and got a bid to the Outback Bowl, the players were ecstatic.

"Last year we were pumped up because in '05 we didn't even go to a bowl game," senior quarterback Erik Ainge recalled recently. "We were excited just to have a bowl game, let alone a really good one like the Outback Bowl."

The '06 Vols couldn't parlay that excitement into a bowl victory, however, suffering a lethargic 20-10 loss to Penn State.

Now the Vols are preparing for another Outback Bowl, but this time the mood is different. Instead of reveling in their return to post-season play – as was the case a year ago – they are looking to wipe out the memories of a disappointing 21-14 loss to LSU in the SEC Championship Game Dec. 1 in Atlanta.

"This year a lot of us still have that bad taste in our mouths," Ainge said, "and we're lucky we have another game to play."

Still, you have to wonder how excited and motivated the Vols are about this particular game. Consider:

- They played the second half of the season knowing their head coach's job was at stake. Now his job is secure for another year.

- They played their final four regular-season games knowing the league title was within reach. Now that motivation is gone.

- They're still upset about squandering a fourth-quarter lead in the SEC Championship Game.

- They're without six players – including three key starters – due to academic deficiencies.

- They're losing their offensive coordinator (David Cutcliffe) and their wide receivers coach (Trooper Taylor) to other schools, with two more aides (Matt Luke, Kurt Roper) likely to join the exodus.

- They're not going to crack the top 10, no matter how well they play in the Outback Bowl.

- They're spending the bowl season in Tampa for the second year in a row.

Given all of the above, you have to wonder if Tennessee's players will be fired up for the Outback Bowl or if they'll merely go through the motions, as they did in the 2002 and 2003 Peach Bowls.

"It depends on the person," Ainge said. "A lesser person could say, ‘Oh, we're going back to the Outback Bowl.' But the kind of people I think we have on this football team are the kind of people that will say, ‘This is an opportunity to go play a football game we've been blessed to be able to play.'

"It's all about your attitude."

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