KNOXVILLE — The University of Tennessee football program played its first bowl game in 1939.
Since that 17-0 Orange Bowl victory over Oklahoma, the Volunteers have displayed a stunning amount of regular-season consistency. They are second in NCAA history with 47 bowl game appearances, and fourth with 25 bowl victories.
The Vols have missed one bowl game since Phillip Fulmer took over as interim head coach in 1992 — and the full-time job for the 1993 Hall of Fame Bowl.
“You come to Tennessee to compete for championships and play in big bowl games,” tailback Arian Foster said earlier this season.
Those lofty standards won’t be met this season, in all likelihood. The Vols are 2-4, 0-3 in the Southeastern Conference. By those standards, this season is a failure at the halfway point.
And it could get much worse.
If the Vols don’t beat Mississippi State (2-4, 1-2) tonight in Neyland Stadium, they run a greater risk of missing a bowl game for the second time in four seasons.
“We don’t even want to think about that,” senior wide receiver Lucas Taylor said. “That would be really bad.”
That hasn’t happened in 30 years.
“We still have six ballgames,” senior receiver Josh Briscoe said. “We still have a chance to play in good bowl game. We know the season’s not over. We’re going out and working hard to get to a postseason game.
“You don’t want to be the senior class that didn’t make it to a bowl game, or especially the senior class that missed two bowl games, like in 2005 or maybe this year. We’re going out and working hard to make sure we end up in the postseason.”
The nicest thing many have said about this season is that it wasn’t as rough as 2005, when the nation’s No. 3-ranked team fell to 5-6 after an offseason full of off-the-field debauchery.
With a few glaring exceptions — most notably senior punter Britton Colquitt — this team has avoided embarrassing off-the-field headlines. It was picked to finish third in the SEC’s Eastern Division, and that’s still possible.
But it’s the middle of October, and only UT and Kentucky are winless in the conference.
“You don’t want to go out as, say, 2005,” said senior defensive tackle Demonte Bolden from Chattanooga. “I feel like that senior class didn’t leave a good legacy. This year, we’ve got to change this around, and I want to be an example — not something people don’t want to be like.”
This team has frustrated coaches on Saturdays, but Fulmer has never questioned its work ethic.
“Really high-character kids, for the most part,” he said. “That’s not the problem. ... We’re just not executing in games like I know we’re capable.”
UT’s struggles should be “personal” to every senior on the team, according to Taylor.
“This place is a huge part of my life,” the soft-spoken receiver said. “When I leave here, I’ll never forget about it. My coaches and teammates here are like family to me.”
Mississippi State is certainly capable of winning in Knoxville, which it hasn’t done since 1986. The Bulldogs have lost eight of their past nine games against the Vols, who host second-ranked Alabama next week and travel to South Carolina the following Saturday.
This is a chance for UT to start salvaging its season. Briscoe didn’t guarantee a victory, but he said the Vols’ season won’t end Nov. 19 against Kentucky. They’d have to win four of their next six games to become bowl-eligible, and that would all but ensure a postseason invitation.
“We’re not going out with a losing record,” Briscoe said. “We’re going out with a win in a bowl game. Whatever we have to do to make that happen, we’re going to do it.”