After a winless October, the University of Tennessee faced a daunting task: win its last four games or miss out on a chance to go a bowl game for the second straight year.
Coach Derek Dooley said he didn’t deliver any Knute Rockne-like speech that motivated his squad. No, according to Dooley, there wasn’t a particular turning point that was set off by one individual player or coach.
Instead the first-year coach cited the determination of a collective group of seniors, who were playing for their third different head coach in three years, as the spark that set off a four-game winning streak and earned the Volunteers a spot in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl (5:30 p.m. Thursday, LP Field).
“It turned only because those seniors made a commitment to turn it,” Dooley said. “It wasn’t anything to do with coaching and anything else. It was our senior class. They committed themselves to finish it out the right way and they did it. I’m proud for them for that.”
Almost down and out nearly two months ago, the Volunteers will play in their fourth bowl in the last five years when they take on North Carolina. The game will be televised on ESPN.
While Tennessee (6-6) leaned on its 16 seniors, the Vols also played 16 true freshmen, tied for the third most in the country.
Dooley said the rapid turnover of head coaches — Phillip Fulmer was forced out in 2008 and Lane Kiffin bolted for USC last January after just one season — and their assistants made it hard to have a balanced squad.
“Because of the coaching change, we didn’t have a lot in the middle,” Dooley said. “So our seniors and our freshmen had to learn to come together and form a team. That was a little bit unique.”
One freshman who rose to the challenge, especially late, was quarterback Tyler Bray. Bray took the starting duties from junior college transfer Matt Simms prior to the ninth game of the season and hasn’t looked back.
Bray, a native of Kingsburg, Calif., is 4-0 as a starter. He threw 12 touchdowns and just four interceptions in Tennessee’s last four games. In three of those, he passed for at least 300 yards a game. He also earned Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Week honors three times.
“I never know what Tyler is going to do and I don’t know how he is going to perform [Thursday] night,” Dooley said. “He has a very confident swagger about him, which he has had since he stepped on campus in January. Sometimes I wonder why he has that confident swagger when things aren’t going well and he is not doing anything right. But I think it is a good quality to have.
“I have been really impressed with the commitment he made, really about the middle of the season. He just started committing himself to working and preparing better. He needs to do it. He has a long way to go as a quarterback, but he has certain things that he does exceptionally well, which has allowed him to function.”
On the other side, North Carolina (7-5) battled through a tumultuous season.
Prior to the season-opener against LSU, 13 players were suspended due to an NCAA investigation into alleged benefits from agents and academic misconduct. In addition, the Tar Heels lost several players to injuries, including season-ending ones to linebacker Bruce Carter, an All-ACC selection, and starting offensive lineman Alan Pelc.
The bad news carried into this week as running back Anthony Elzy did not make the trip. He failed to meet academic requirements, coach Butch Davis said on Wednesday.
“It would be a little frightening to see what their team would look like had they not had the adversity they had,” Dooley said.
Even so, the Tar Heels did enough to reach their third straight bowl.
Senior quarterback T.J. Yates leads the way as the Marietta, Ga., native has completed 67 percent of his passes, throwing for 3,184 yards, 18 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
He and the rest of the Tar Heels shook off two losses to begin the season. They won six out of their next seven, including two on the road to then-ranked Miami and Florida State, to become bowl eligible.
“This football team has been defined by their resiliency and leadership by the seniors,” Davis said. “They have done a remarkable job of maintaining the composure, the maturity of the football team. Every single time that we have asked them when somebody has got injured or somebody had to miss a game, somebody on the football team has stepped up.”
While both coaches agreed the exposure their teams will get Thursday is very beneficial to their respective schools and to recruiting, they said it can have a negative impact — if they lose.
Thus, the way those seniors — on both teams — play Thursday can make a difference for their programs’ futures.
“They know their work isn’t done,” Dooley said. “As much as everybody loves a bowl game, I know Butch can speak [to it] because he has been to a bunch of them. It is no fun losing a bowl game because your whole offseason is affected.”