Tempe, Ariz. - The Tennessee football team that will play in Sunday's Tostitos Fiesta Bowl might be better suited for the physical matchup with Nebraska.
And the Volunteers say they have the Huskers to thank for that.
Nebraska's 42-17 mauling of Tennessee two seasons ago in the FedEx Orange Bowl showed the Volunteers that they had to learn how to get physical if they wanted to play with the big boys of college football.
"Before that game, we shied away from being physical," Tennessee quarterback Tee Martin said. "Before, we were more of a team that relied more on finesse and speed. We went more to being a team that relies on speed and power after that Nebraska game."
Said Tennessee defensive back Deon Grant: "That game two years ago showed us what we needed to do, and that was to be able to go out and play four quarters of physical football. That game left a bitter taste in our mouth. We weren't used to being beaten like that."
Nebraska beat Tennessee in the Orange Bowl in typical Husker style, pounding the Volunteers with a rushing attack that produced 409 yards. More than 200 of those yards came in the third quarter, when Nebraska scored three touchdowns to expand a 14-3 halftime lead to 35-9.
Aaron Taylor, Nebraska's Outland Trophy-winning offensive guard in 1997, said by halftime of the Orange Bowl game that the Huskers knew that Tennessee didn't have the muscle to stand up to NU's more physical approach.
"We went into the game thinking we could beat Tennessee by pounding the ball right at them," Taylor said. "I remember in the middle of the second quarter, Leonard Little, Tennessee's best defensive lineman, came up to me and said, 'Man, you guys are good.'
"I took that to mean that he didn't think they could handle us. At halftime, we told the coaches that we felt we could run it right at them. I thought it might take one or two series, but we could tell after one or two plays of the second half that it was over."
To Tennessee's credit, the Volunteers learned from the pounding. It provided them with the impetus to get bigger and stronger, paving the way for their national championship run last season. The Volunteers capped a 13-0 season with a seven-point victory over top-ranked Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl.
"The Nebraska game two years ago showed us where we needed to go to get to the next level from an intensity level and a strength level," Tennessee defensive end Will Overstreet said. "That game helped make this team better, this program better.
"It was a good experience for us, if a loss can be a good experience. It was a good growing pain, you might say."
Tennessee last season used an approach that featured a physical running game on offense and a beefed-up defense to win it all. The Volunteers have displayed a similar personality this season in fashioning a 9-2 record that has earned them the No. 5 and 6 ratings in the national polls.
Tennessee has relied on running backs Jamal Lewis and Travis Henry to pound the ball at opponents, averaging almost as many yards rushing per game (191.3) as it does passing (214.9). Defensively, the Volunteers rank in the top 11 in three of the four major statistical categories - seventh in rushing defense (112.7-yard average), seventh in scoring defense (14.8-point average) and 11th in total defense (297.7-yard average).
"We took some lessons learned in the Orange Bowl, and that really helped propel our season in '98," Tennessee Coach Phillip Fulmer said. "Just the physicalness of playing at that level, it certainly proved we had some work to do. We made some good strides that way."
The Volunteers hope to return to Sun Devil Stadium and show Nebraska just how far they've come in two seasons.
"Nebraska kind of manhandled us the last time," said Tennessee's Chad Clifton, a 6-foot-7, 330-pound offensive tackle. "But now, we're more balanced. This really is a different type of Tennessee team."
Tennessee All-America linebacker Raynoch Thompson emphasized that point with a simple warning for the Huskers.
"If they think we're the same team," Thompson said, "they have another thing coming to them."
Thompson, Tennessee's leading tackler with 87 stops, relishes a second shot at Nebraska.
"It seems like I'm happier to get Nebraska than if we were going to the Sugar Bowl," said Thompson, referring to the Jan. 4 site of the national championship game. "It's going to be a weird feeling, trying not to get all excited and knowing that they're the last team to really beat us like that. It's going to be a chance to let off a lot of anger."