NASHVILLE — Tennessee's last two bowl trips included chartered plane flights to sunny Florida.
This one required a bus ride of nearly three hours to the same city where the Volunteers played their last football game roughly one month ago.facebook
After its final practice in Knoxville for the season, Tennessee arrived at the Gaylord Opryland Resort in Nashville on Monday afternoon for Friday's Music City Bowl clash with Nebraska.
"We're coming here to win the football game, and that's what we talked about," coach Butch Jones said. "It's a reward for our seniors. There's a lot of great things that come with playing in this bowl game, but the bottom line is to come here and know how to manage your time and to win the football game."
After returning from a brief break, the Vols returned Saturday to begin game-week preparation, and they're scheduled to practice today at Montgomery Bell Academy just down the road from Vanderbilt's campus, where Nebraska began practice Monday and where Tennessee ended the regular season with a humiliating defeat.
With the bowl kickoff coming a day earlier than Saturday, Monday's practice in Knoxville was a typical Tuesday workout, only it included one of Tennessee's long-standing traditions with the "Last Tackle," where the seniors tackle a dummy as their teammates look on.
"Coach Jones told me to make sure I do not tackle it," quarterback Josh Dobbs said, "so I just knocked it over with my helmet."
Before Dobbs could go any further, defensive end LaTroy Lewis cut him off and chimed in with his take on it.
"It was the first tackle I've ever seen in my life without somebody actually being in a helmet," he quipped.
Only three years ago one of Tennessee's program traditions took place the last week of the regular season, though the Vols playing in a third straight bowl game after a three-year postseason drought shouldn't diminish the disappointment this campaign was for Tennessee.
Nevertheless, the Vols haven't won three straight bowl games since the mid-1990s, when they followed up a Gator Bowl rout of Virginia Tech with consecutive Citrus Bowl wins against Ohio State and Northwestern.
Tennessee won its bowl games the past two seasons in dominating fashion against Iowa and Northwestern and will go for a third straight bowl win against the Cornhuskers (9-3), who announced Monday they will wear helmet stickers with the slogan "Mountain Tough" to honor the victims of the Gatlinburg wildfires last month.
"The key has just been preparation and diligence in preparing with practice, film and knowing our opponents inside and out and knowing ourselves inside and out," Lewis said. "During the season you don't get as much time to really scout yourself as you do during bowl prep.
"We've been able to see the tendencies we give away and the things we didn't do as well and perfect those."
Jones said success in bowl games hinges on preparation and the excitement of being there, and he believes how his team has attacked its preparation this month shows the Vols have interest in winning Friday's game. He indicated the focus the players showed earlier in the month didn't drop off after many players went home to see family during their break.
"Not at all," Jones said. "That's been the exciting thing is we gather back and we have a practice of lifting and walk-throughs on (Christmas Eve) and practice on Christmas Day. Our players have been energized. We've had some of our better practices, so that's been really exciting to see."
Motivation may be the biggest factor Friday. The Huskers lost three of their final five games — by 59 points to Ohio State and by 30 to Iowa — after a 7-0 start pushed them into the top 10. Tennessee similarly was ranked in the top 10 after a 5-0 start but then flopped to four losses in its final seven games.
Dobbs said the Vols are focused on "trying to put our best foot forward" Friday.
"We practiced very well with a lot of intensity, and guys were focused and motivated to get back on the field once we got back from Christmas break," he said, "so we've had a great two days of preparation thus far and now we've got to keep that same intensity level now that we're in Nashville getting ready for Friday."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.