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This item appeared in The Times & Free Press on Sunday, January 2, 2000.

[Times & Free Press: Vols Stirred Up by Underdog Status]

Vols Stirred Up by Underdog Status

Assistant Sports Editor

TEMPE, Ariz. -- A bubbling Tennessee teapot tempest could boil over tonight. When oddsmakers bestowed favored status on Nebraska for this evening's Fiesta Bowl, they threw a kerosene-soaked stick on a well-kindled fire.

Since early December when the bowl matchups were announced, there have been questions about the degree of the Vols' eagerness to return to the Fiesta without so much at stake as last January.

Does 9-2 Tennessee belong at the site of its national championship, playing against 12-1 Nebraska, college football's team of the '90s? Are the Volunteers motivated, and what could possibly motivate them?

"Tennessee is a couple of plays from being in the national championship game," said Charlie McBride, Nebraska's legendary defensive coordinator. "You have to have a little bit of luck for a season like that. We learned that from games against Missouri and Kansas State in years when we've been there.

'When I look at past years, they are as tough a football team as we've had (to play), including national championship games."

So, yes, Tennessee belongs here, at least in McBride's estimation, but he isn't alone.

"Just a few points separate both teams from being in New Orleans. Nothing against Florida State or Virginia Tech, but the two best teams in college football are here," said Ralph Brown, Nebraska's All-America defensive back. "We're looking at this as the national championship game."

UT coach Phillip Fulmer wouldn't disagree.

"Nebraska's lost five games in the last two years; we've lost two games in the last two years. This game is a matchup of the last two national champions," Fulmer said. "We both had our opportunities, so this is about as close as one can get."

When the Cornhuskers lost to Texas, they knew there was a chance they too would miss the boat to New Orleans, where unbeatens Virginia Tech and Florida State will square off Tuesday to decide this year's national champ.

"The big thing for us was being able to play a good team, a team we respected," Nebraska I-back Dan Alexander said, emphasizing that UT was such an opponent.

The Cornhuskers' motivation is setting the stage for a 2000 national title run.

"It's what we did in '97 for the '98 season," offensive tackle Adam Julch said. "We want to use this as a springboard for next year."

Tennessee's incentive? Writing the first chapter of a similar scenario, sure, but the Vols are also contemplating repeating last year's Fiesta Bowl championship, regaining respect and exacting a measure of revenge.

The respect thing never seems to get old.

The Vols this year seemed to take one step forward and two steps back before finally dotting each "I" and crossing each "T" to finish the '99 season with a very modest -- by Tennessee football standards -- two-game win streak.

"You lose a game, maybe two, and all of a sudden people are talking like you're not part of the national championship thing," UT defensive end Shaun Ellis said. "People still don't talk about us when they talk about the Florida States and Nebraskas."

A loss to Florida early crippled UT's national repeat hopes, and the stunning upset at Arkansas severed the Vols from this season's national championship tree.

"We lost some (respect) this year because we didn't do as well. That's part of it," center Spencer Riley said. "But we're four-point underdogs going into this ballgame, and I think we deserve more respect than that.

"Then again, we've played in three straight (postseason) games where we were underdogs and won two of 'em, so I don't mind being the underdog. It would be huge for us to beat these guys -- for us, for the fans and for the program," Riley added.

A victory would make this the first class of Tennessee seniors to end each of their college football seasons with 10 or more wins. It would give UT five straight seasons of top-five finishes. And beating Nebraska would be the school's 700th victory all-time.

"All of that is good and important, but it's really respect and payback," said quarterback Tee Martin, who's more than ready to play after a serious bout with the flu early last week. "These guys took it to us pretty good two years ago, and a win over them would help set things straight."

Only Texas' 36-13 victory over Tennessee in the 1969 Cotton Bowl kept Nebraska's 42-17 Orange Bowl decision two years ago from being the most lopsided loss in the Vols' extensive bowl history.

"We had held Nebraska to 64 yards rushing in the first half and had things, other than a couple of turnovers that cost us points probably, going OK," Fulmer said. "It wasn't great, but it was OK. We were very embarrassed by the second half of that game.

"It will be a challenge, but we're going to try to do better."

Tennessee was criticized for not being able to handle the Cornhuskers physically and made changes in its strength and conditioning program, but Nebraska coach Frank Solich tried his best to diffuse this particular UT motivational tool.

"In the second half, we were able to get rolling," Solich, an assistant coach at the time, said of the '98 meeting in Miami. "That can happen to anybody where all of a sudden another team, things start clicking well for them. No matter how good a team you have, if the other guy starts rolling, you can have problems.

"Tennessee was a much better football team than what that score indicated. There was a lot of talk about them not playing physical football at that time, and I don't think that's the case. They were physical," Solich said.

"I think they learned some things, but you don't win as many games as they do by tripping people all the time. They play physical football and have for some time."

Tennessee has focused all week on doing just that.

'It's cranked up,' Fulmer said of his team's attitude. "I couldn't have asked any more from the players. They have been mentally sharp and focused on our plan."

Yes, the Vols have come to play, as evidenced by a comment from safety Deon Grant when told of Nebraska's springboard-for-2000 talk.

"I guess we'll just have to take the spring out of their board, huh?" Grant said.

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