Vols wrap up '07

While most of America is celebrating the start of 2008, the Tennessee Vols will be wrapping up 2007 today in Tampa.

With a 9-4 record and a No. 16 Associated Press ranking, this team will not be remembered as one of Phillip Fulmer's finest, no matter what happens in today's Outback Bowl shootout with Wisconsin. Still, today's outcome is significant. Tennessee's fans will carry it with them for seven months. Tennessee's seniors will carry it with them for the rest of their lives.

"It's very important for the seniors," sophomore defensive tackle Dan Williams said recently. "This is their last game, and we want to send them out on a good note."

Eight seniors will make their final career starts for Tennessee this morning (11 a.m. EST kickoff). They are quarterback Erik Ainge, tight end Brad Cottam, H-back Chris Brown, defensive ends Xavier Mitchell and Antonio Reynolds, defensive tackle J.T. Mapu, linebacker Ryan Karl and safety Jonathan Hefney.

There are some good players in that group but no one who is even remotely irreplaceable. Tennessee's talent level should be better next fall than it was this fall, so the immediate future is brighter than the immediate past. Williams believes a strong showing today could provide a kick-start for next fall.

"We want to start off next season right," he said.

That task would be a lot simpler if three starters – leading receiver Lucas Taylor, second-leading tackler Rico McCoy and 6-6, 290-pound defensive tackle Demonte Bolden – weren't sidelined by academic problems.

Bolden's absence puts pressure on Williams to pick up some of the slack. Complicating matters is the fact Wisconsin's offensive line is one of the biggest, strongest and most physical the Vols have faced.

"They have a big offensive line," Williams noted. "They average like 6-6 and 320, so I know I have to stay low, find the ball and stay in my gap. They kind of remind me of LSU because they're a very physical team."

Williams, Mapu, Mitchell and Reynolds must get some pressure on Badger quarterback Tyler Donovan. Otherwise, he'll spend today as he spent 12 regular-season Saturdays, tossing strikes to 6-4, 245-pound tight end Tyler Beckum (73 catches, 1000 yards). Tennessee recruited Beckum when he was a senior at Oak Creek (Wisc.) High School three years ago but came away with teammate Raymond Henderson instead.

"They have a big-time tight end," Williams said.

And Tennessee – minus three key starters – has a big-time challenge.


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