Staff Photo by Staff Photo by Dan Henry / Chattanooga Times Free Press - UT's Jarrod Shaw (74) and Denarius Moore (6) embrace while celebrating their team's recent victory over Kentucky.
KNOXVILLE -- The good vibes around the Tennessee Volunteers football program have been impossible to ignore.
UT (6-6, 3-5 Southeastern Conference) won just two of its first six games but became bowl-eligible by sweeping the last four. A 24-14 victory over Kentucky on Nov. 27 capped a perfect November, giving the Vols' seniors one final game and the underclassmen essentially an extra spring practice in December.
But would a Music City Bowl loss to North Carolina (7-5, 4-4 Atlantic Coast Conference) on Dec. 30 wipe all that away?
Coaches and most media seem to agree that UT simply making a bowl game was enough to deem Derek Dooley's first-year as head coach a success. But coaches and media don't spend millions annually on UT tickets and apparel. Coaches and media don't spend millions to constantly upgrade UT's already-astounding facilities.
Fans do that.
An informal poll by the Times Free Press this weekend seemed to show that most fans agree with that assessment, though. A Vols win over the Tar Heels would be nice, but not necessary.
"It was a huge win for us just to get there," said Stephen Crutchfield, a UT fan in La Vergne, Tenn.
More than 100 fans responded to a Twitter and Facebook question from the TFP on Saturday, and a vast majority seemed content with the Dooley Era to this point. Some, citing North Carolina's geographical proximity to Knoxville and its perception as a "basketball school," were adamant that the Vols needed to win the bowl game. Others noted that a losing season is never acceptable for a program like UT, regardless of the circumstances. But most were simply pleased with the Vols' playing in the postseason and getting extra practices for their underclassmen.
"To be honest, I really don't think it's nearly as important as just getting there in the first place," said Ooltewah, Tenn., resident Brian Ramsey. "I'll be there, and I feel confident Tennessee will win, but just getting to the bowl game after the adversity faced by this team and the 2-6 start makes this a successful season. On top of that, this bowl game will have little to no TV competition with other bowl games, is a great regional rivalry, and, most importantly, Tennessee gets that extra month of practice.
"So, no, winning will happen and be great, but this season was a success as soon as the whistle blew on the Kentucky game."
Kurt Wilkerson, a resident of Maryville, Tenn., said "5-7 [would have been] an acceptable record for this team."
"So 6-6 and making a bowl game made it a good season," Wilkerson added. "To win the bowl game would match Kiffin's record, which is sweet retribution for Vol fans, but that's about it.
"The extra practices are much more important for the team and the future."
Chattanooga's Van Patton agreed.
"A bowl win would be great for a first-year coach at a program with virtually no depth," Patton said. "A tremendous bookend to a season that was seemingly finished after a 2-6 start."
Knoxville's Michael Hart already sounds sold on Dooley and Co., too.
"Considering all that has happened to the Tennessee football program in the past couple of years, I would say that for this specific team getting to a bowl game is a big accomplishment and speaks volumes toward the players and the coaching staff," Hart said. "I don't see a loss in the music city bowl to be a huge hit to momentum. Last year's loss in the Chik-fil-A bowl had no effect on this season.
"I doubt any prospect is sitting and thinking about avoiding Tennessee because they didn't do well in the Music City or Peach Bowl."
Some disagree with Hart's take, though, saying a win in Nashville was vital to the Vols' potential momentum on the recruiting trail.
"I think it is very important to win. Doesn't matter by how much, though," said Stefanie Arnold, a former Vols hostess who lives in Atlanta. "It is embarrassing any time we lose out of conference. A win is a nice [way] to send our seniors off and shows positive momentum before signing day, to the team and fans."
Added Nashville's Don Knoch: "With the current roster in the shape it is and the early injuries, I think getting to the bowl was a big accomplishment. However it is critical to win the bowl game to keep momentum going for recruiting. There is a buzz right now and it is important to keep it going. A really good recruiting class will help to get back sooner than expected or hoped for."
Izzat Ansari, a UT fan in Bethesda, Mary., agreed with Arnold and Knoch.
"I think it's important to have a winning record and the fact that we will have won five games in a row," Ansari said. "It would carry momentum into the recruiting season and the Vols would be seen as an upcoming force to be reckoned with.
"Beating UNC would also help subside the backlash that came with canceling the game next year."
Knoxville's Ryan Ownby said the Music City Bowl is "definitely a must-win or close loss situation."
"A win gives a young team a real confidence boost coming into the spring and puts most of the SEC on notice that Tennessee is on it is on its way back up," Ownby said. "A close loss stills shows the team that there is work to do, but that there has been a lot of progress since this time last year. A blowout loss will only demoralize a young team.
"They're too hungry to get to the next level to just settle for a bowl bid. They want to go 7-6 and have the winning record."
Most said a loss to the Heel would only sting for a bit, though.
"The win would be very important to Tennessee from a fan base standpoint," said Kevin Baxter from Hopkinsville, Ky. "Win or lose, just getting bowl game experience for all the freshmen on this team is a blessing. They fought through adversity in the first half of season a gelled as a team in November and gained confidence. A talented and confident team will be hard to beat. A win in Nashville is icing on the cake as Dooley, his hair and assistants try to solidify a great recruiting class and also keep the fan base going 'loco.'
"All a loss will do is disappoint for a few days. I think most fans are very patient with this team and Coach Dooley. The future is bright with Bray and Co."
Nick Wallace from Montgomery, Ala., and Atlanta-area resident Leo Hilzendeger said UT's bowl game was a "win-win" situation.
"I do not think a loss crushes the momentum, but a win would be huge for momentum," Wallace said. "Sure, the Vols didn't beat any quality opponents this year, but look what Dooley had to work with. The team is dominated by young players and young players that can play. "Any time you get a team to a bowl, it is good for the program and the university. I think the country has seen what Dooley can do as a coach with very little already, and a loss in the bowl game will not discredit that one bit.
"Dooley seems to be getting the respect from recruits that he wants already. "Other than a losing season, a bowl game loss does not hurt the program moving forward."
Added Hilzendeger: "The Vols making it to the bowl game was a major win in terms of a turnaround, the team and fans believing in Dooley's system and recruits seeing that the future is bright. The bowl Game is not a must-win, as we're now on the radar, but it could make things easier for recruiting and increase momentum. A loss could slow down momentum but not kill it, and it could sway some recruits away. A win could solidify Dooley's system and bring a lot of respect to the talented freshman and show incoming freshman that if they are good, they will play and they can make a positive impact."
James Henson, a UT fan in Allen, Texas, said the bowl wasn't a must-win but could be "validation" for Dooley.
"I don't believe a loss crushes momentum at all," Henson said. "Having won our last four games just to become bowl eligible, having played as many freshman as we did throughout the season, and having unveiled the plans for the new football training complex, I believe there is plenty of room for optimism regardless of the bowl outcome.
"All of the above should translate to a top 15 recruiting class and plenty of continued momentum heading into 2011."
Some fans, as always, weren't quite sure how they felt about a game that hadn't started.
Logan McCabe from Johnson City, Tenn., laughed at his uncertainty.
"It's really important for this team to get the extra practice the bowl game provides," McCabe said. "More time gives the coaches and players an opportunity to learn, grow and know. Both players and coaches are young from the team perspective, so just getting to the bowl is a huge step. I believe the positive recruiting impact has occurred, win or lose the Music City Bowl.
"But, this team also needs confidence and to learn how to win. To understand not only (that you) can win, but you expect to win is huge with this bowl game. This need to win is especially true because of the erosion of confidence the past few years and the beat down in last year's bowl game. A win will go a long way to bring back the swagger the Vols once possessed, but haven't exhibited in a few years.
"How is that for decisiveness?"
Contact Wes Rucker at email@example.com or 865-851-9739. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/wesruckerCTFP or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tfpvolsbeat.