NASHVILLE — It's been more than a month since Tennessee played a football game.
How the most recent game went has the Volunteers extremely eager to return to the field and establish a fresher, much more positive memory.
All month, Tennessee's players have dispelled the notion they won't be motivated or interested in the Music City Bowl against fellow former top-10 team Nebraska, and the tone hasn't changed this week since the Vols arrived in Nashville.
"I definitely want to leave all the guys that are leaving this program, whether it's seniors or guys that have put in a lot of time to this program, I think it's important to send them off with a bang," safety Todd Kelly Jr. said Wednesday before the team's walk-through at Nissan Stadium, where the Vols (8-4) will face the No. 24 Cornhuskers (9-3) at 3:30 p.m. EST Friday.
"Getting this victory would be very important. But we're not really trying to look from the past or toward the future. I think it's just focusing on now, because we can't change anything that happened. Using it as fuel, I think, is important, because the last time we were in Nashville we didn't like the result that we had. Having the opportunity to come here again and play another ballgame is very important to this program and to our team, and we'll do whatever we can to get this victory."
Tennessee's loss at Vanderbilt in the regular-season finale cast a cloud of uncertainty around the program and diminished the importance of its bowl game. The program, and particularly coach Butch Jones, has more to lose with a loss to Nebraska than to gain with a third straight bowl win, but neither outcome will change much in terms of the big picture for Tennessee.
Staff changes, including the hire of a new strength training coach, appear inevitable, and next season is a make-or-break one for Jones regardless of Friday's result. But those issues are beyond the realm of concern for the players, particularly for outgoing seniors who want to end their careers with a victory.
"You ask any senior that question, it's going to be special to them," quarterback Josh Dobbs said. "You always want to end your career on a high note with a win, especially a bowl-game win. It's been a while since Tennessee's won three consecutive bowl games or even been to three consecutive bowl games, so to have that accomplishment would definitely mean a lot for this program and continue to propel them in the upward direction that it's been moving."
A win would give Tennessee a second straight nine-win season, which is markedly better than just a few years ago, when the Vols played in just two bowl games in a six-year span and endured four straight losing seasons. The Vols were frustrated, though, as they left too many wins on the table in 2015 and 2016.
One of those was the defeat to the Commodores, but the loss and the Sugar Bowl trip it likely cost Tennessee hasn't affected the team's preparations, which Dobbs said have featured energy and intensity.
"We've shown throughout the season, just our competitive nature," he said. "Things haven't gone our way all season. Some things have, some things haven't, and that's the game of football. Guys really understand that. Obviously we wish things would have gone differently, but at the end of the day, we have another opportunity to play the game we love.
"That's all these guys need to be motivated to come out and play. I know guys are excited for the opportunity. A lot of underclassmen are starting to get more reps, and they're excited about continuing to grow and perfect their craft, and seniors want to go out on a high note. It's another opportunity to put our reputations on the line and put our brand of football on the line, and we're definitely excited for it."
They're also tired of waiting for it.
"I feel like we haven't played a game in forever," Kelly said. "We've just been going against each other — offense versus defense, offense versus scouts and defense versus scouts — and it's about time we played another color. I'm kind of glad Friday's coming up. We've been putting a lot of work and preparation in.
"At the end of the day we have one game left we're ready to play a ballgame."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.