The University of Tennessee football seniors will practice on campus for the last time this morning. At some point, each one is apt to think about another senior, Billy Ratliff.
Ratliff, a fifth-year senior and co-captain from Magnolia, Miss., practiced for the last time almost three months ago. He suffered a broken leg against Auburn Oct. 2.
The Vols will miss Ratliff again Jan. 2 when they play third-ranked Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl. Every time Nebraska points its attack at the middle of your defense, it teaches you to appreciate a tackle of Ratliff's quality.
"He will be missed from an experience standpoint and for his leadership," UT coach Phillip Fulmer said. "But we can't concern ourselves with things we can't do anything about."
The Vols have played more than half a season without Ratliff. They haven't played anyone like Nebraska.
Middle linebacker Dominique Stevenson was asked, "Who was the most physical team you played?"
"South Carolina," he said.
Safest bowl prediction: Nebraska will be more physical than South Carolina.
Nebraska's commitment to power football is well-documented. Its finesse is not so well-documented.
The Cornuskers' option offense relies as much on precision as power. They run basically the same plays from different formations, with different blocking schemes. The differences are often subtle.
Even without Ratliff, the Vols are better prepared for this Nebraska assault than the one two years ago in the Orange Bowl. Senior Darwin Walker is an All-SEC tackle; sophomore John Henderson has started half a season in Ratliff's place; freshman Albert Haynesworth looks promising; Fulmer also has been pleased with the progress of sophomore Ed Butler.
"The last time we played them, we were nicked up at tackle," Fulmer said.
Walker's "nick" isn't expected to be a factor. He suffered a shoulder injury against Arkansas and didn't start against Kentucky. He played more the following week against Vanderbilt.
Walker ended the season with 46 tackles, including seven sacks, and eight tackles for losses. Henderson wasn't far behind with 43 tackles, four sacks, and five tackles for losses.
"I have been very impressed with how John Henderson has stepped up," Fulmer said. "It has been a learning experience for Albert Haynesworth.
"He's got a lot of potential. But potential is like knuckles; everybody has them. His challenge is to improve every day on the field, to practice with a purpose, take coaching well and use his God-given abilities."
Henderson gives Ratliff part of the credit for his progress.
"He was my mentor," Henderson said. "He taught me everything about defense. He made it simple."
He also made it like basketball, the 6-foot-8 Henderson's other sport at Pearl-Cohn High School in Nashville. Henderson said Ratliff would relate a spin move in football to a pivot move in basketball. "When I looked at it like that, it became easy," Henderson said.
Ratliff was still recovering from his broken leg when he helped ready the Vols for Alabama. Until Ratliff showed up, Stevenson was concerned about his own health.
"I had a knee injury at the time," Stevenson said. "I was really doubting my knee."
When Stevenson saw Ratliff on crutches, he thought less about his knee and more about Ratliff"s misfortune. "I was going to play every play like it was my last," Stevenson decided.
Nobody on this team loves football more than Ratliff, who overcame one injury after another before he went down for the last time Oct. 2. But he's hardly the only Vol with a passion for the sport and the competition it offers.
Unlike last year, the Vols can't bring a national championship back from Phoenix. Nor can they achieve perfection. They can only play a game they love one more time.
If they need someone to remind them of the significance, I'm sure Ratliff will be available for the pregame speech.