KNOXVILLE – It’s tough to sugarcoat what Tennessee’s senior class has been through.
Most were recruited by one coach, led by three years for another, only to have a third leader step in for their final season. That’s not to mention the revolving door of position coaches, strength coaches and other personnel that has helped guide them through four-to-five years in Knoxville.
“These seniors have been through a lot,” said coach Butch Jones. “I talk to them all the time about their experiences here, some good, some bad, some indifferent. It has been a resilient group of young mean. They have been through a lot.”
The losses have piled up as well. One of the nation’s winningest programs historically is in the midst of an all-time drought. The seniors who have been at UT four seasons have posted a 20-27 record heading into the final games of this season.
No current seniors have won a bowl game with the Vols. This could be among the least successful class of seniors in UT history in terms of winning percentage, depending how this season plays out.
That’s reality for the 22 seniors who are preparing to play their final game at Neyland Stadium this Saturday against Vanderbilt.
But there’s also the reality that there’s still work to be done. The Vols, currently sitting at 4-6, can still make their first bowl game since 2010 with two more wins. They could win their first bowl since 2008 if they can get there. And Vanderbilt, a growing in-state rival, must be dealt with this weekend.
Emotions will be running high. They can’t let them get in the way, though.
“We will talk about it, just focus on the task at hand,” said Jones. “We talked about playing meaningful games in November and we are still playing meaningful games in November. We need them to play their best football and not get caught up in the clutter and the external factors and all that that go into making up that emotional state of mind."
And maybe Saturday’s game doesn’t have championship implications, but there is still a lot riding on it. Two wins and a bowl appearance can’t erase some painful memories that have build up over four years. It would be a good way to go out, though.
"Basically what Coach Jones has been preaching is that we want to leave this program the right way,” said senior guard Zach Fulton. “We are the building blocks of a great program so getting to a bowl game this year is a big step for now and years from now."
Added senior defensive end Jacques Smith, “It is going to be an emotional moment, but I am just really looking forward to playing in Neyland, on that grass, and especially with it being at night. It will be a special game.”
• Out: QB Justin Worley, TE Alex Ellis, TE Joseph Ayres, WR Ryan Jenkins, DE Malik Brown, DT Trevarris Saulsberry
• Non-contact jersey: TE A.J. Branisel, S Brian Randolph, WR Drae Bowles, TE/FB Joe Stocstill, WR Jacob Carter
• Running back Justus Pickett, a walk-on who is sitting this season out after transferring from Maryland, is back practicing this week after missing much of the season with a lower leg injury. He’s ineligible this season, but can play in 2014.
• Offensively, the Vols continue to work on different goal-line packages including multiple tights end and a fullback.
• The team started practice with 1-on-1 races through agility ladders. It started with players and eventually turned to graduate assistants participating as well.
• Curt Maggitt is simulating Vandy defensive end Kyle Woestmann in practice and walk-on Dylan West has been playing the role of Vanderbilt star wide receiver Jordan Matthews.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga