Normally, the loss of two assistant coaches prior to a bowl game would rank as big news. For the Volunteers, it's merely a blip compared to the latest controversy surrounding coach Lane Kiffin's program.
The NCAA is reviewing the activities of Orange Pride, a student organization comprised primarily of women, two of whom drove close to 200 miles to attend a high school game in South Carolina featuring two players committed to UT, as well as another player whom Kiffin is recruiting.
If it's determined the trip was paid for by the school, it could be construed as a major violation by the NCAA, the type of goof for which many Kiffin haters around the SEC have been waiting.
Assuring Tennessee fans that the program has done nothing illegal, Kiffin is taking his team through the early stages of preparation for the Chick-fil-A Bowl against Virginia Tech on Dec. 31 in Atlanta.
"I think the guys have come out with great energy," Kiffin said after practice on Dec. 11. "They understand the importance -- we have team meetings every day to make sure they understand -- that we have a great practice."
Assistants Eddie Gran and Frank Wilson are leaving for Florida State and LSU, respectively, leaving the Vols two coaches short for the bowl game. Kiffin said those spots won't be filled until January.
While the circumstances aren't ideal, UT and its fans are excited about the bowl trip, particularly since it didn't go to a bowl game last year.
The school sold out all 17,500 of its tickets and probably could have sold twice as many. Now, it's up to their team to produce a performance that proves the controversy du jour wasn't a distraction.
--At this time last year, Tennessee was in complete rebuilding mode. The Vols' long-time coach who brought them the 1998 national championship had been fired, replaced by a brash new coach who quickly made waves with his mouth and his tactics.
Lane Kiffin's first season has been a success in ways that go beyond a 7-5 overall record. Tennessee improved as the season progressed, overcame a slew of injuries to win four of its last five games and earned a berth in the Chick-fil-A Bowl against Virginia Tech.
Kiffin's reaction to the bowl bid was typically big-picture, focused mainly on the opportunity to play in what's becoming one of the program's recruiting strongholds -- Atlanta.
"We have many players from Atlanta and the state of Georgia," he said. "It's a great location for us to be in this postseason."
--The game also figures to be strong safety Eric Berry's last for the Vols, as he's likely headed for the NFL and first-round riches in the spring. He won the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back.
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: A source of consternation in the first month, the offense improved greatly when Jonathan Crompton morphed from punch line into a legitimate SEC quarterback. His 26 touchdown passes lent much-needed balance to a Montario Hardesty-led attack. Hardesty has rushed for 1,306 yards and 12 touchdowns. Wide receivers Gerald Jones and Denarius Moore turned into reliable targets down the stretch.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: Working around multiple injuries, coordinator Monte Kiffin fielded one of the nation's top units. Its only real weakness was stopping the run, even though DT Dan Williams, LB Rico McCoy and SS Eric Berry were three of the SEC's best. Virginia Tech TB Ryan Williams and QB Tyrod Taylor will severely test this unit. The secondary has played well but must deny the Hokies their big pass plays.
MATCHUP TO WATCH: Tennessee SS Eric Berry vs. Virginia Tech TB Ryan Williams -- Playing closer to the scrimmage line has made Berry a bigger factor against the running game. He'll have to be at his best against Williams, who has rushed for 1,538 yards and scored 20 touchdowns as a freshman. Berry is certain to be psyched for this appearance in his hometown, especially since it might be his last game for the Vols.
OTHER KEY MATCHUPS:
--Tennessee SS Eric Berry vs. Virginia Tech QB Tyrod Taylor.
Odds are that Berry will be a "spy" against the mobile Taylor, who's improved as a passer but can break a defense's back with his scrambling. Berry is a hard-hitting, sure-tackling, two-time All-American who will look to finish his college career with a bang.
--Tennessee's pass protection vs. Virginia Tech's pass rush.
With ends Jason Worilds and Nekos Brown, as well as LB Cody Grimm, the Hokies can bring heat from everywhere. But the Volunteers allowed the fewest sacks in the SEC, a prime reason why QB Jonathan Crompton suddenly blossomed into a viable threat in the last seven games.
--Tennessee's kick coverage vs. Virginia Tech's special teams.
Tech KR Dyrell Roberts led the nation in yards per return for part of the season, while PR Jayron Hosley was equally dangerous. The Vols were shaky at times covering kicks, exasperating coach Lane Kiffin. A similar performance in this game could mean a Hokie victory.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We continue to develop younger guys and it gives us a chance to look at the film and experiment with other things." -- Coach Lane Kiffin on early bowl practices.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
BOWL BREAKDOWN: Tennessee vs. Virginia Tech, Chick-fil-A Bowl, Dec. 31, Atlanta -- The schools are less than four hours apart but haven't met since the 1994 Gator Bowl, a 45-23 Vol win behind freshman QB Peyton Manning. UT is returning to the bowl scene after sitting out last year. The Hokies are in their 17th straight bowl game and are shooting for a sixth straight 10-win season.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
TB Montario Hardesty -- The senior rushed for a team-high 1,306 yards and scored a dozen touchdowns, leading the offense to respectability. Hardesty has been a workhorse, averaging 22 carries per game.
QB Jonathan Crompton -- Over the last seven games, Crompton has turned from reviled to respected, becoming one of the SEC's top quarterbacks. He finished his senior season with 26 touchdown passes.
LB Rico McCoy -- The senior has been one of the SEC's top linebackers, consistently recording double-figure tackles since the loss of MLB Nick Reveiz. McCoy will be particularly motivated to end his career with a bang.
SS Eric Berry -- The junior will be stoked in what figures to be his last game. Berry is an Atlanta-area product and will want to put on a good show, which might include setting the NCAA record for most career interception yardage.
--DT Wes Brown (knees) has played all year despite nagging pain that has often kept him from practicing. The month off between the season finale and the bowl game should help him be more productive.