ATLANTA -- Tennessee football players, from seniors down to freshmen, have harped all week on the importance of beating 12th-ranked Virginia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Bowl and finishing the season in the nation's Top 25 poll.
First-year coach Lane Kiffin has downplayed the importance of sneaking in the bottom of the polls -- "I don't think (recruits) really read the final Top 25 rankings, so I don't really worry about it," he said -- but Kiffin's current players see it differently.
It's about pride from salvaging this season and momentum going forward, many Volunteers have said this week.
"Me personally, I feel like we shouldn't have ever left, but that's on us," junior wide receiver Gerald Jones said. "When you think about Tennessee, you think about a program that's always ranked, and usually pretty high up there. Now it's time to get it back, and to put Tennessee back where we belong and really get this thing going on for next season."
Senior defensive tackle Wes Brown conceded that "no one comes to Tennessee just to be ranked in the Top 25. But considering where we've been recently, even earlier this year, I'll take it. It would show how hard we've worked, how well we've been coached and how much we stayed together when times were tough.
"It would mean a lot to us. I know it would mean a lot to me."
Added senior offensive tackle Chris Scott: "Anybody who went through last year with us, if they said they wouldn't be excited about being back in the Top 25 ... they're crazy."
There's also the little matter of history. Every UT team since 1985 has spent at least one week in The Associated Press poll. Even the losing-record teams in 2005 and 2008 were ranked early in the season.
"We've overcome a lot of adversity to finish second in the SEC East, and no one can take that away from us," junior linebacker LaMarcus Thompson said. "We struggled a little bit early before getting everybody on the same page, and some guys were hurt, but we kept getting after it and turned ourselves into a pretty good football team.
"Beating a great ACC team like Virginia Tech in a big bowl game, maybe getting back in the polls, I guess you could say what would be a little icing on the cake. But no matter what, we've come a long way."
The Vols put themselves on the verge of the Top 25 in early September and early November, but losses to UCLA and at Ole Miss squashed each chance.
But they're closing in again, and most think a win over Virginia Tech would earn them a spot. They've won five of their past seven games. They crushed Georgia and South Carolina and lost to top-ranked Alabama on a blocked field goal as time expired.
"We're playing one of the best teams in the SEC, if not the best at the end of the year," Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said. "I think anyone that looks at it and follows football would say this team is right at the top of the SEC."
As Kiffin noted, being ranked in the Top 25 earlier in the season would have given the Vols a bigger boost in the nation's eyes. Ranked teams get longer highlight clips on "SportsCenter" and more space in publications outside their home region.
Jones said the Vols wouldn't prepare any differently for spring practice and preseason workouts with or without a spot in the polls. It's doubtful that UT will earn a preseason poll position next season, considering the core nucleus they'll have to replace.
Still, Jones said any "number in front of your school's name is an honor."
"We weren't in it this year or last year, toward the end of the year," Jones added. "It would be big, but if we're not, that doesn't mean anything. I've seen teams not be in the Top 25 and then work their way up to the top 15 or higher.
"But, yeah, obviously it would be nice to end this season closer to where Tennessee belongs."
Freshman tailback Bryce Brown said the Vols "definitely" feel like one of the nation's Top 25 teams, but they'll have to prove that tonight.
"Our coaches talk a lot about, 'It's not where you start; it's where you finish,'" Brown said. "As a team and a staff, we would like to finish well. It would help us recruiting wise and confidence wise going into next year."
Other contacts for Wes Rucker are www.twitter.com/wesrucker and www.facebook.com/tfpvolsbeat.
Twitter - @wesrucker Facebook - /tfpvolsbeat