published Tuesday, September 11th, 2012

Tennessee Vols must focus with extra hype

Tennessee junior linebacker Jacques Smith (55) from Ooltewah and lineman Maurice Couch (44) say the Vols appreciate the extra attention this week of a Top 25 listing and a "College Gameday" visit, but they can't let that distract them from preparing for Florida.
Tennessee junior linebacker Jacques Smith (55) from Ooltewah and lineman Maurice Couch (44) say the Vols appreciate the extra attention this week of a Top 25 listing and a "College Gameday" visit, but they can't let that distract them from preparing for Florida.
Photo by Patrick Smith /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE -- Tennessee football coach Derek Dooley dubbed it "external drama" and "external clutter."

The Volunteers can't hide from the hype and building hoopla surrounding Saturday night's showdown with rival Florida. They now are ranked (No. 23), and ESPN representatives will be in town all week preparing for the popular Saturday preview show "College GameDay" from Tennessee's campus.

Thinking about all that won't help the Vols run the football effectively against the Gators' stout defensive line or stop a Florida offense that's seemingly found its identity.

"This week we've just got to really stay focused," UT defensive lineman Maurice Couch said after the closed practice Monday morning. "We've got a bunch of other external factors that will keep us off track, so as a team our mission is to stay focused and get mentally prepared for Florida and just go in and compete.

"It could be motivation, but from the coaches' standpoint it's going to be more of a distraction. I understand where they're coming from because a lot of guys start worrying about that, and they're more focused on that than actually going out and playing."

Dooley told the players they had earned the right to some of the attention with their performances in the season's first two games. The Vols found out about that attention midday on Sunday, when the Associated Press poll was released and ESPN announced its weekend plans.

For a program that's had three losing seasons the past four years, the news created some smiles.

"A lot of people were excited," safety Brian Randolph said. "I got a lot of text messages from my teammates and my friends, calling me and saying that we're ranked and GameDay's going to be here. It's a lot of hype, but we're going to try to keep our head focused on Florida."

Cornerback Prentiss Waggner found out from safety Rod Wilks, his roommate. Tailback Devrin Young said he's watched "GameDay" his whole life. Randolph admitted he'll probably watch it Saturday if the Vols' schedule allows.

"It was pretty big," Waggner said. "Guys on the team in workouts were pretty much pumped about it. It's pretty fun."

Some players acknowledged pride in the Top 25 ranking and mentioned it as a program goal.

"It's just something special that we've accomplished, but we're not looking at the accomplishments yet," linebacker Jacques Smith said. "It's not the end of the season. It's [also] exciting to have 'College GameDay' to come to your town.

"I knew the stadium was going to be packed regardless. It's Florida-Tennessee. We're just excited, and it's just another stage for us to show our talent and how good we are as a team."

Yet all the ranking and the three-hour commercial on ESPN would be wasted if the 18th-ranked Gators leave Knoxville the winners, and how Tennessee handles a week of buzz with more of the national spotlight than it's had in years can help it avoid a major letdown.

"We want to be in the Top 25 like a hundred other teams," Dooley said. "But you can't be in it if you don't keep winning. If you're focused on being in the Top 25 and not what you need to be in the Top 25, then you're not going to be in the Top 25.

"The best exposure you can get is to win. That hadn't changed. If you go and have 'GameDay' out there and then you lay an egg, I mean, all that goes out the window."

As he usually does, Dooley downplayed the game's magnitude, and win or lose there are nine games left on Tennessee's schedule after Saturday. For players, it's probably easier to prepare for Florida, Georgia or Alabama than it is for Georgia State or Sept. 22 foe Akron. For coaches, it gets a little more challenging with all the extra distractions.

"I think it depends on your level of maturity and your experience in that situation, and this will be a little new for us," Dooley said. "But it's good, and I think our players will handle it fine. This is where you want to be.

"You didn't come to Tennessee to not be on a big game and a big stage and 'GameDay.' That's why you came here, so it shouldn't really have any impact on your preparation [or] any impact on your focus. The only impact it has is for the fans."

Dooley said Monday's practice featured "a little more spunk," and the Vols need to match that energy with focus to make sure the buildup doesn't crash down hard when the ball is kicked off Saturday night.

"I think we're doing a good job of not letting that get in the way, so that's a big plus," Couch said. "We've got a lot of the older guys keeping the young guys kind of level-headed. Everything's going to be good, and I'm pretty sure 'GameDay' and being ranked won't be a distraction."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.

about Patrick Brown...

Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...

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