KNOXVILLE — If it worked last season, why change?
The plan of bowl preparation Tennessee used last December paid off as the Volunteers raced to a fast start in a dominating win against Iowa at the TaxSlayer Bowl on Jan. 2.
Thus it's not surprising head coach Butch Jones is electing for a similar schedule this month as Tennessee readies for the Outback Bowl against Northwestern on New Year's Day in Tampa, Fla.
After players wrapped up final exams and coaches traversed the recruiting trail last week, bowl practices will crank up for Tennessee this week.
"Every team is different," Jones said last week. "They have a different personality. They have different leadership. Obviously you look back (at last year), but it's kind of a formula we've had for a number of years of going to bowl games.
"We'll look at that, we'll follow the blueprint, but we'll tweak it to the needs of this current team. We'll tweak it toward what this football team needs."
This month is important for Tennessee for a couple of reasons.
First, a handful of players are using time away from football to get healthy after going full speed since August and picking up the bumps and bruises that come with a 12-game season.
Secondly, it's a chance for some younger players, redshirting or not, to get extra work. That's always key in terms of their individual development.
For any of a handful of freshmen — offensive linemen Jack Jones, Drew Richmond and Venzell Boulware, defensive linemen Kahlil McKenzie and Darrell Taylor, or defensive backs Micah Abernathy and Stephen Griffin — the more reps they get, the better.
With campus a ghost town after the end of the semester, the players are pretty much the only students on campus, and the Vols used this stretch of time last season to go on a couple of team outings and build camaraderie and chemistry.
Still, Tennessee's main goal is beating Northwestern.
"Most of our young players are already playing, (and) some of our youngsters are injured," said Jones, who is 2-2 in bowl games, going 0-2 at Central Michigan and winning his lone bowl appearance at Cincinnati before last season's victory with the Vols. "But it's a balancing act of getting your youth development that you need, and then also getting your football team prepared to win a bowl game and play winning football. We'll take the first couple of days and do all the above.
"It's a balancing act, but they are very, very big. First and foremost is doing whatever it takes to win the bowl game in our preparation and understanding the importance. You try to get to most of your work done here before you venture to the bowl site."
The Vols will fly to Tampa on Dec. 26 and begin practice the following day at the University of Tampa.
There will be bowl-sponsored events each day. The Outback Bowl will keep both teams busy with a welcome dinner, plus visits to Busch Gardens theme park, a Tampa Bay Lightning hockey game, local hospitals and the beach.
The bowl is regarded as one of the most player-friendly games.
"Our kids knew what was at stake towards the tail end of the season," Jones said. "They knew that they were fighting for relevance in terms of the bowl games This is probably the most questions, the most excitement I've seen in a football team of where we were going. I think that was a byproduct of last year's experience, and we'll rely on that."
For at least an hour on New Year's Day, the Outback Bowl will be the only college football game underway, so Tennessee and Northwestern will have much of the nation's attention until Ohio State and Notre Dame kick off in the Fiesta Bowl.
The Vols hope another fast start leads to another strong finish to a season.
"Any time you finish the season with a victory, particularly in a bowl game, it lends itself to a lot of momentum moving forward, a lot of energy," Jones said.
"This will only be half of our team's second bowl trip, and it comes down to the maturity of a football team," he added. "Can you manage the clutter, the distractions that a great bowl game brings about? Do you have the self-discipline to do what it takes to get yourself mentally and physically ready to perform and play winning football on Jan. 1?
"Last year's football team defined that."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.