One of the most dreadful things for any college football fan is the dead period in between the end of the regular season and the start of the bowl season. However, it is a necessary evil, as the emphasis in that time is placed on the studying part of being a student athlete. But that doesn't keep the die-hards like me from cursing the system.
After a two-week hiatus from the practice field where they traded their shoulder pads for scantron sheets, Derek Dooley and the Tennessee Volunteers are prepared to jump back into action Thursday at the Neyland Thompson Sports Center.
Six weeks ago it was difficult to picture the Vols would have the opportunity to be practicing in December at all, but after an unblemished November the youthful Vols have put themselves into a rather delightful bowl scenario.
Thursday, December 30th, the Volunteers will make the short trip west to Nashville to play the University of North Carolina in the Music City Bowl.
Starting tomorrow the Vols will have 14 days until they have to lace them up and head into battle with a solid UNC squad. Over those two weeks Vol fans should be looking to focus their attention on a few major issues for this football team going into Nashville.
One of the major advantages to any team that has a layoff to deal with going into their bowl game is obviously improving the overall health of your team, but this is especially true for a Tennessee team that comes in well under the NCAA's allotted 85 scholarships.
The Vols had a dreadful preseason training camp, losing several key players including impact defensive lineman Marlon Walls and Ben Martin, leaving them with 72 scholarship players going into the season. They had a fairly successful season when it came to keeping their players healthy, but with the serious lack of depth the Vols already faced, even the slightest nagging injuries became a major issue as the season moved along.
The opportunity to get this team healthy is going to be a huge factor, as the Vols make ready for North Carolina in Nashville.
It goes without saying, but anytime you are only privileged to a mere 72 scholarship kids you are going to have to play a lot of young kids in critical positions and the Vols were no exception. They played the second-most true freshmen of any team in the nation, and they played them at places where it certainly showed early in the season.
However, these young men have been baptized by fire in the always gruesome SEC and after months of putting in the time and effort in a league that can certainly make a man out of anyone, these kids can no longer be considered freshmen in my opinion. The next two weeks will be a major opportunity for the baby Vols to show a new level of focus and maturity, while gaining valuable experience going forward.
Throughout the season every coaching staff in the country pours their hearts into preparing for the next opponent, but for the most part the playing field is often neutralized by the short amount of time that a team actually has to prepare from one week to the next. There are always exceptions, but often the team with the most talent prevails in a week-by-week scenario.
However, during bowl season a coaching staff has a real opportunity to show its wizardry when it comes to X's and O's. Game-planning is everything in a bowl game and this will be the first chance for this coaching staff to show that it is up to par when it comes to out-scheming an opposing coaching staff.
It will be interesting to see what OC Jim Chaney and DC Justin Wilcox have dialed up for Butch Davis and the Tar Heels.
One of the things that has been well documented this season is that these seniors have had a rough time of it in their careers at the University of Tennessee. The Music City Bowl is going to be the first real chance for these 15 seniors to leave a lasting impression on the Tennessee football program.
The obvious hope in Knoxville is that coach Derek Dooley has a long future ahead of him with the Vols. Chris Walker, Luke Stocker, Gerald Jones and company have the chance to be bowl winners in Dooley's first season. These elder Vols certainly have plenty of motivation going into Nashville, but putting their stamp on one of the greatest programs in college football is obviously a primary goal for this class.
This one is as obvious as they come to most Volunteer football fans, or anybody who follows the SEC but it can not be understated how crucial this game is for the Vols in terms of gaining momentum going into next season and even 2012.
It is fairly blatant that the Vols are smack dab in the middle of a rebuilding process and are likely two years away from making any real noise in the Southeastern Conference, and this game serves as a launchpad into next season for the Vols. It helps with player development and confidence going forward and it has potential to pay dividends on the recruiting trail.
Not to mention, getting a win in Nashville in front of what is bound to be a very Orange friendly crowd will go a long way towards rallying the Volunteer fans from across the state.
All in all, I think it is a major accomplishment just for the Vols to be bowling at all this postseason, but that doesn't mean that the buck stops there. A win in this game is still absolutely critical for the program as well as the school and the state, and I expect nothing less than a solid, disciplined performance out of Coach Dooley and the Tennessee Volunteers.
Tennessee has apparently dismissed defensive backs Art Evans and Stephaun Raines.
Tennessee also will welcome three freshmen early enrollees from the Class of 2011. OL Mack Crowder and TE Brendan Downs from Tennessee High in Bristol as well as ATH Vincent Dallas from Georgia will be practicing with the team for the bowl.
Finally, Senior TE Luke Stocker will be getting a pass from practice on Saturday. He is getting married, congrats to Luke and his bride to be and wish him the best.