A Question of Etiquette, Economics and Image

Tennessee's unexpected football struggles this season have Vol fans surveying a new landscape -one that is devoid of rankings, titles, honors and maybe bowl games.

Standing at 4-3 with five games remaining, including three road games and home contests against No. 1 Miami and resurgent rival Kentucky, Tennessee is staring at a possible losing record and a question of etiquette. Should one except a bowl invitation with a 6-6 record?

You can be sure some financially strapped, fan starved post-season extravaganza will extend an invitation to a Tennessee program blessed with a fan base that travels en masse even in the worst of times. Some might say the Vols should reject such a proposal if they meet the NCAA's mandated six-win total needed to qualify.

By refusing such an invitation, the Vols could avoid a losing season and criticism for going to a bowl with a .500 record. The argument goes that it's a matter of pride and post-season play should be reserved as a reward.

It's easy to understand such sentiment, but as strange as it might sound there's still plenty of incentive packed into the final five games of 2002. And there are at least 10 good reasons the Vols need to finish strong enough to qualify for a bowl.

(1) It would keep Tennessee's streak of post-season appearances alive at 14 straight. When the Vols rectify their current problems and get on a roll again no one will care that it went 6-6 in 2002 -only that the bowl streak is intact.

(2) The post-season streak is a selling point to recruits and the last thing you want to do during a critical recruiting season is to apologize to prospects on official visits for not reaching a bowl game.

(3) The extra three weeks of practice you get with a bowl invitation is invaluable to the development of young players.

(4) Going to a bowl allows a team to build momentum going into off season workouts and provides a natural transition into the next season. Part of that process is the evaluation of young talent..

(5) For the exposure. Even though thoughts of playing in the Independence Bowl or Music City Bowl doesn't exactly quicken the pulse, in truth, every bowl (except for the championship game ) lost its luster once the BCS was instituted.

(6) Many Vol fans make their holiday plans around trips to bowl games. It's a tradition and at Tennessee tradition has to be preserved. It's would also be only the third time in a 13-game season that UT fans get an opportunity to travel out of state. Unless, of course, they go to the Music City Bowl which also has its pluses. It would allow more fans to attend without busting their holiday budget. Additionally, The Stadium formerly known as Adelphia has been kinder this season to the Vols than Neyland.

(7) The glass is half full. When you accept a bowl invitation at 6-6 you run the risk of suffering a losing season, but you also gain an opportunity to post a winning season.

(8) Bowl game memorabilia. A lot of fans collect such items and give them as Christmas gifts. Also, the bottom line for many fine merchants depend on those purchases..

(9) DUH: The money! (10) Last but not least: It's an opportunity to cut into Alabama's edge for post-season appearances during a year when the Crimson Tide is jailed for recruiting indiscretions. Bama is currently No. 1 with 51 appearances while Tennessee is No. 2 with 42. It would also prevent Texas (41) from tying the Vols for No. 2 in the post-season appearance category. Additionally, Tennessee is tied with Penn State at No. 3 in bowl wins with 23. Alabama is No. 1 with 29, but can't add to its total this year or next. Tennessee could close the gap to four over Bama with back-to-back bowl victories. It might not mean much to most Big Orange fans, but it means a lot to Alabama and it's as close as the Vols can come to revenge this year.

If you stretch your imagination you can come up with other reasons to go bowling even at 6-6. For example: It's a chance to meet a mediocre team from another conference. After a steady diet of SEC teams and a main course of Miami, Tennessee might appreciate a cupcake.

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