Tennessee football players will see a lot of Crimson in Neyland Stadium Saturday night but several of them already are seeing red.
After opening as 18-point underdogs to top-ranked Alabama, the Vols have seen the point spread swell to 20 points. That means no one is giving them a chance to be competitive, a development several players view as extra incentive to perform well.
"Twenty points is a lot of points," senior linebacker Herman Lathers said, "but it’s extra motivation. I don’t see how you put a team down 20 points but it’s motivation. It makes you work harder in practice, makes you game-plan more, makes you watch more film. We’ll be ready for ‘em."
Based on an 0-3 SEC record, a disgruntled fan base and a coach on the hot seat, a season that began with promise could be unraveling. The Vols believe it can be salvaged, however, if they upset Bama.
"Definitely," Lathers said. "That’s what guys come to Tennessee for … to play in big games, especially a rivalry game like this."
Although Tennessee is allowing 43 points per game in SEC play, sophomore cornerback Justin Coleman finds the 20-point spread really insulting.
"I’m not a fan of that because I know our defense is good," he said. "It hasn’t been working out lately but we’re going to get it working."
Like Lathers, Coleman believes the prodigious point spread will bring out the best in the Big Orange.
"Sometimes being the underdog makes you play with a lot of heart and play better," he said.
Senior wide receiver Zach Rogers, a Nashville native, chose his words carefully but clearly feels animosity toward Las Vegas oddsmakers.
"Whatever they think, that’s their problem," he said. "We know what we have in our offensive room and in our defensive room and special teams. We know what we can bring, and that’s what we’re going to do.
"We’re ready to fight. We’ve had some tough losses the past few weeks but we can’t let that faze us. We’ve got to move on and look forward to Bama. We just need to stay together and stay confident in what we have. I think we’ve gotten away from that in a couple of games, haven’t finished like we want to. All of that’s in the past. We’ve got to focus on what’s ahead of us."
Conversely, junior defensive tackle Daniel Hood, a Knoxville native, doesn't feel the lopsided betting line is at all disrespectful.
"Based on how we’ve played thus far, I wouldn’t say so," he said. "That’s just a favor right now; the game hasn’t been played yet."
Senior linebacker Willie Bohannon is equally unaffected by the betting line, noting: "We expected that. We haven’t shown our full team ability yet. We need to show it big-time, and this is an opportunity to do it."
Junior linebacker Jacques Smith, who hails from Ooltewah, says players who need extra incentive to be excited about a Vol-Tide game are playing the wrong sport.
"Point spreads don’t matter," he said. "It’s Alabama-Tennessee, and if you don’t get fired up about this game you really don’t know anything about SEC football."
Senior fullback Ben Bartholomew, another Nashvillian, touched on the same theme, noting: "This game, for everybody, is a little more personal than other games. It’s such a rich tradition and it’s the No. 1 team in the nation, so you’ve got to bring everything you’ve got."
Despite the dire outlook from oddsmakers, Bartholomew believes the Vols have an excellent chance to prevail.
"The team just focuses on the family and everything inside. We’re not really worried about outside opinions," he said. "It’s Tennessee-Alabama, and the expectation is to win every time, no matter what."
Sophomore tailback and Knoxville native Devrin Young believes the oddsmakers have done the Vols a favor by suggesting they can't hang with Bama.
"It feels good," he said. "We’re just going to be able to go out there and play, prove a lot of people wrong."
|Tennessee senior Willie Bohannon says the Vols are yet to play a complete football game.|
Like playing golf at Augusta National or competing for an Olympic gold medal, facing college football's No. 1 team is the ultimate challenge and the ultimate thrill. The Vols seem appropriately enthusiastic.
"It’s a huge opportunity, and I think we’re going to take advantage of it," Smith said. "We’ve proved a lot but we haven’t won games. This is a game that we can definitely take some steps that we haven’t taken and get a win. That will tell a lot of people who we really are."
Rogers echoed those sentiments, noting: "It’s a great opportunity for us. They’re the No. 1 team in the country for a reason. They’ve got a great offense, a great defense and great special teams. They deserve all the credit in the world but we’re going to give them a dogfight for 60 minutes."
Bartholomew, whose grandfather (Sam) and brother (Will) represented Tennessee in games against the Crimson Tide, went even further.
"Nothing’s better than having the No. 1 team in the nation, Alabama, coming in," he said. "That excites the whole team. It’s why someone comes to Tennessee; you get to play the No. 1 team in the nation. Tennessee and Alabama … it doesn’t get any better than that. Me and the other (in-state guys) who have been around know the tradition and we’re excited about it."
Coleman sees the Bama game as a chance for redemption.
"It’s a good opportunity for us to get back in the game," he said. "We’re not worried about rankings but this would show people we’re a good team. If we beat them, then our team is going to have the confidence we can beat anybody."
Bohannon, an Alabama native from Mobile, draws hope from 2009, when a heavy underdog Tennessee team gave Bama fits in Tuscaloosa before bowing 12-10.
"My redshirt year we got a chance to play them when they were No. 1 and we almost pulled it off," he said. "This year we’ve got to come in with the mindset of playing hard and doing our assignments."
Junior offensive guard Zach Fulton says playing top-ranked teams is a common occurrence for teams competing in the rugged SEC.
"It's pretty exciting," he said. "We usually do it (face the No. 1 team) every year, but it’s always exciting."
Facing America's top-ranked team as a 20-point underdog is a daunting task, even on your home field. At least one Vol isn't intimidated, however.
"Number 1," Young said defiantly, "is just a number to me."
To hear more from Young after practice earlier this week, check out the video interview below: