Bowling for Status

As entertaining as bowl games can be, they're a poor means to decide a national championship and an unreliable barometer for forecasting a football program's future.

A bowl victory leaves a good taste in the mouths of fans, but it can also satisfy a team's hunger, leading to a winter of content and a loss of intensity. Whereas a loss can usher in months of belly aching from a discontent fan base, but it can also ignite fires in the bellies of returning players on a given team.

Tennessee's recent history underscores how unreliable bowl game results are for gauging the future. In 1997 the Vols rolled to an 11-1 record and the SEC championship behind the play of senior signal caller Peyton Manning before running into an inspired Nebraska squad in the Orange Bowl and losing 42-17.

The next season, wihout Manning and fellow first round NFL Draft picks Terry Fair and Marcus Nash as well as later draftees like Leonard Little, Trey Teague, Jonathan Brown, Andy McCullough and Corey Gaines, the Vols captured the national championship with a victory over Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl.

Bringing most of their starters back in 1999 along with the injured Jamal Lewis, the Vols were well equipped to defend their title, but only managed a 9-3 record after another embarrassing setback to Nebraska in a return trip to the Fiesta Bowl.

In 2001 Tennessee walloped Michigan in the Citrus Bowl, 41-17, to finish 11-2. The Vols went into the next season ranked No. 2 nationally and the choice of many publications to pick up their second Waterford Crystal football in four seasons.

However their crystal ball was foggy as the Vols never seemed focused in 2002 and finished 8-5 in a season further derailed by an outbreak of injuries. The last loss that year was the most damaging, as UT was routed by Maryland in the Peach Bowl 30-3.

That disappointment seemed to motivate the Vols to a better 2003 campaign as they won road games against Florida, Alabama and Miami, but a loss to Clemson in a return trip to the Peach Bowl cast a pall over the 10-3 record.

Hope returned after another 10-3 mark in 2004 that included an SEC East title and a 38-7 victory over Texas A&M. With freshman starter Eric Ainge back at QB and Gerald Riggs returning off a 1,000-yard campaign UT seemed ready to compete for a national title in 2005. As we know they instead suffered their first losing season in 17 years.

In fact the last time Tennessee won consecutive bowl games was in 1995 and 1996. Before that it was 1989 and 1990. The Vols lost consecutive bowl games in 1999-2000 and 2002-2003. They also stayed home in 2005 and lost in 2006. They haven't played in a BCS Bowl game since 1999.

Given such spotty success, it's foolish to make any declarations based on UT's New Year's Day victory over Wisconsin. With that stated it should enhance the remainder of the recruiting season. Furthemore it provides some income for the program and gives the Vols four extra weeks to practice.

In an era when the glut of bowl games translates to invitations for virtiually any 6-6 team, it's fair to state that it's far more important to go to a bowl than it is to win one. Likewise it's more important to go to a BCS bowl than it is to win any other bowl, while winning a BCS bowl is critical to achieving elite status.

Until the Vols can do that again there will always be a sense of unrest in Big Orange Country.

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