A “memorable” football season isn’t always a good thing. It depends on what you’re remembered for.
Take Team 117, for instance. It entered the 2013 season hoping to be remembered as the group that turned Tennessee’s football fortunes. Heading into Saturday night’s finale at Kentucky, however, it is hoping not to be remembered as the group that posted the first eight-loss season in program history.
Bottom line: A season once built on positive goals – a winning record and bowl bid – has been reduced to avoiding a negative achievement – the losingest record in Volunteer annals.
Obviously, the Vols don’t want to be that team.
“It’s very imperative that we win,” senior defensive end Jacques Smith said. “If we are the first team to make eight losses it will be a big devastation to me and the rest of these seniors. We’re going to do whatever we can to get this win.”
Senior linebacker Dontavis Sapp echoed those sentiments, noting that averting the first eight-loss season in program history is “very important. Our pride is on the line. Tennessee is on the line … the whole state. If we give up we’re letting so many people down that we don’t even know about.”
Tennessee probably has fielded worse teams than the 2013 squad. Teams are judged by their records, however, so future generations are likely to view this as the program’s worst squad ever if it suffers an eighth loss.
“That’s a motivator for us,” sophomore safety Brian Randolph said. “It motivates us to try and put a bright spot on our season. We know we’re not the worst team, so we’re going to try and prove it.”
Senior offensive tackle Ja’Wuan James agrees that being part of the only eight-loss season in program history is not the legacy the 2010 signing class wants to leave behind.
“It’s very important,” he said. “We don’t want to be remembered as a 2010 class for breaking streaks or starting streaks. We don’t want to do that. We just want to go out and compete, try to get a victory.”
Senior defensive lineman Marlon Walls said the same thing except even more emphatically. It means a lot to him that this team not be remembered as the losingest in program history.
“This season has been disappointing for us but, at the same time, we don’t want to go out as being the worst team in Tennessee history,” he said. “That’s what’s at stake right now…. We refuse to be the first team to lose eight games in Tennessee history. This goes way back before us. It’s way more important than us, so we’ve got to hold the bar. The bar’s been set for us, so it’s time to go to work.”
Senior guard Zach Fulton conceded that “It’s very important not to be that team. That’s one of our motivating points we have this week. We talked about it in our team meeting.”
Senior running back Rajion Neal feels the same way, noting: “We’re going to do everything in our power not to be a part of that type of history.”
Setting a record for futility by posting an eight-loss season would be especially painful for members of this senior class, since they will get no opportunity for redemption.
“I feel like it’s very important,” senior center James Stone said. “There’s so many things going into this: The fact we’ve never had an eight-loss season and it’s the last football game for 28 seniors wearing the University of Tennessee on our pads. I think it’s very important that we go out there and get this last win.”
In addition to being the first Vol squad ever to lose eight times in a season, a loss in Lexington would make this the first Vol squad in nearly five decades (1964) to lose to Vanderbilt and Kentucky in the same season.
Tennessee’s program already posted some regrettable feats this fall. For instance:
Largest losing margin (45 points) in a 59-14 setback at Oregon since a 48-0 defeat at the hands of Mississippi A&M in 1910.
First time since the 1920s losing to Vanderbilt in back-to-back seasons.
First time since 1903-06 posting four losing seasons in a row.
Whether they win or lose on Saturday, Tennessee’s players will be forgiven by most of Vol Nation if they play hard. Conversely, if they go through the motions – as they did in a 10-7 loss at Lexington in 2011 – the players can count on being vilified by their own fans.
Neal remembers that pitiful effort at Commonwealth Stadium in 2011, noting: “It definitely will be brought up as something we talk about to give us a little fuel to motivate us.”
Smith also views Tennessee’s last trip to Lexington as a cautionary tale for this year’s squad.
“It’s an ugly memory,” he said, “and I just want to erase it with a win.”