LEXINGTON, Ky. — For the third time in the last seven years, and just the fourth time since 1988, Tennessee won’t play in a bowl game.
“It’s really disappointing,” UT coach Derek Dooley said. “It’s something that shouldn’t happen at Tennessee and hopefully it’s something that won’t happen again for a long time.”
The season-ending loss to Kentucky puts the final stamp on a year that began with some optimism and hope, maybe undeservedly so.
“There’s a lot of ways you can look at it,” Dooley said. “Sometimes you don’t get always what you want, but a lot of times you get what you deserve, and we’re not a good football team. We’ve got a lot of work that we need to do to be a good football team. We need to go to work at that. Going to a bowl will make you think you are better than you are. Probably wouldn’t have helped us, when I look at it.
“We need to know that there’s a lot of things you have to do to be a good player, and there’s a lot of things you have to do to be a good team. And we aren’t doing what we need to do, so we don’t deserve to get rewarded. That’s just how it is.”
Like last year, the Volunteers needed to win its last two games against Vanderbilt and Kentucky to reach six wins and make post-season play, but that wasn’t on the team’s mind Saturday.
“To be honest, we weren’t even thinking about a bowl,” senior defensive tackle Malik Jackson said. “We had a lot of young guys who thought, ‘Oh, we’re supposed to beat Kentucky,’ but not really putting in the work. I feel like that’s what happened. A lot of people thought we were supposed to beat Kentucky, but it just fell in our laps. At the end of the day, they’re a team too that came out here and worked harder than we did. They deserved the win.”
That youth brought on much of the pre-season excitement, which even grew after the first two games of the year, but the veterans on the team believe the reliance on underclassmen playing key roles hurt UT, culminating in the loss to the Wildcats.
“They’re just young,” Jackson said. “It’s hard to say, especially as a senior leaving. But they’re young, they don’t know no better. Until they get older and kind of see where we come from as seniors, then they’ll understand, but right now they don’t have a clue.”
Senior middle linebacker Austin Johnson believed some of the younger players were focused more on personal achievements than the team’s performance.
“There are too many guys that it’s all about them, their stats and stuff,” Johnson said.
Whatever it was that will keep the UT team home during the holidays, which has to include injuries to quarterback Tyler Bray and star receiver Justin Hunter, it isn’t the norm with a program like UT’s.
“As a team, we’ve got to learn how to play with adversity,” sophomore defensive tackle Maurice Couch said. “Losing Bray and Hunter at the beginning of the season, we kind of went downhill a little bit.”
“We’re just going to focus this off-season, working on getting bigger, stronger and just coming together as a team, like when times we got down, we’ve got to stick together and fight through it.”
For Jackson, who’s expected to be an early-round selection in the 2012 NFL Draft, the problems that held the Vols back this year extend outside of football, and include being more dedicated to the team.
“Just everything. Off the field, practice, everybody coming out and practice harder and not just say, ‘Oh, I’m here,’ but actually go out there and be happy they’re there,” Jackson said. “At the end of the day, that’s what we’re here for. A lot of guys don’t really understand that this is what we’re here for. They come out there and think it’s another day. It can be taken from you so fast. They just need to learn to grow up on and off the field and just as people.”
Despite the divide in the locker room and the results on the field this year, Dooley still sees a bright future for the Vols and hopes Saturday is the low point.
“We’re going to begin our climb right now,” Dooley said. “At some point, we had to hit a real low point with where this program is, and I knew we were going to hit one. I did. I hoped we wouldn’t, but it’s inevitable. You’re going to hit a bottom.”