ORLANDO, Fla. -- They missed a chance to play for the national championship, but Tennessee's seniors still have one important job left.
If the No. 8 Volunteers beat No. 17 Michigan in the Citrus Bowl on New Year's Day, the seniors will earn their first bowl win since 1998.
"This year we've got a chance to make a statement about the season but also about the past two bowl games," Tennessee offensive guard Fred Weary said.
Most of this year's seniors didn't play much in the 1998 bowl but saw the losses to Nebraska in the Fiesta and Kansas State in the Cotton last year up close.
Tennessee has lost three of its last four bowl games, which also includes the loss to Nebraska in the Orange Bowl in Peyton Manning's final season.
Attitude, the players say, was a big factor in the losses, and that changed this season.
"I think we could have beaten Nebraska and Kansas State, but I don't think everybody's head was in the game," junior defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth said. "This year I think everybody's head is in the game because the seniors are pumped up. The juniors are pumped up, the sophomores are pumped up and the freshmen are even pumped up."
Many of the players in the Fiesta Bowl at the end of the 1999 season may have been thinking a little too much about the NFL. That spring, several juniors left early for the draft. Perhaps motivation was difficult after winning the national title the year before.
Last season's attitude for the Cotton Bowl is a little harder to explain, except that many of the key players were young and the season had several disappointing losses. Or maybe it was the cold weather or long layoff between the final regular season game and the bowl.
Coach Phillip Fulmer has repeatedly praised this year's seniors for their leadership and maturity, which seems to have rubbed off on the younger players. Getting excited for the Citrus Bowl is not as easy as the Rose Bowl, where the Vols had hoped to play.
"You have to get the rest of the team up and get them going. It's up to the seniors and captains to do that," senior defensive tackle John Henderson said. "I've seen that in practice, and the young guys are stepping it up."
Quarterback Casey Clausen, a sophomore, has already figured out attitude for a bowl is important. After the Vols' loss to LSU in the Southeastern Conference championship on Dec. 8, he said players who weren't going be ready to play in Orlando shouldn't even pack their bags.
"He had to make sure everybody was going to take this game seriously, as if it were a national championship game because we've had a tendency to do that in the past," junior receiver Donte Stallworth said.
This class of seniors isn't used to losing. In fact, they are 40-8 in the last four years, which included a 14-game winning streak.
"There have been disappointments along the way, but those disappointments have made the big wins even better," senior defensive end Will Overstreet said. "If you've never lost a game you don't know it feels to win. Last year was a key to that. It taught me how to lose and taught me the meaning of a win."
The biggest win of their careers may have been this season's victory over Florida in The Swamp to end a 30-year losing streak. But the season didn't end after that game.
Their college career and the 2001 season ends New Year's Day either with a win or a loss.
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