Tennessee, it seems, never let the sweet success of a national championship sink in. Two days after the Volunteers won the title with a victory over Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl, defensive tackle Darwin Walker walked into the team's locker room in Knoxville and found this sign on the wall:
"0 down, 13 to go."
Already the 13-0 mark was being pushed from some memory banks. "It's not something that is kept quiet around our team," Walker said during the Southeastern Conference media day. "We're not afraid to admit we want to repeat."
Nor should it be kept quiet because Tennessee could be a better team than in 1998. The defense has to replace fiery linebacker and team leader Al Wilson, but the Volunteers also have seven starters returning, including three potential all-Americans. Wide receiver Peerless Price has taken his spectacular hands to the NFL, but tailback Jamal Lewis, who rushed for more than 1,300 yards as a freshman, is back after a knee injury ended his season four games into the 1998 season. Lewis will run behind a line that Coach Phil Fulmer says could be the best in his 20 years at UT.
"I think there's no question Tennessee could be better than last year," said Georgia Coach Jim Donnan.
Being better than last year means enjoying the title just a little and then leaving it behind. Fulmer says that has been accomplished with most of the team staying in Knoxville this summer to lift weights and condition themselves. If a player wasn't at one of the "voluntary" workouts, quarterback Tee Martin was on the phone getting the offender out of bed.
"Tradition does not graduate," Fulmer said. "You go back to work. It's not like we won the lottery and can retire."
Few people are allowing the Vols to get too confident. After all, they are an afterthought in the preseason discussion of "Who's number one?" What's more, Tennessee is still being ridiculed for close victories over Syracuse, Florida, and Arkansas, which were called "lucky."
"We were ecstatic not to be number one in the preseason magazine; I was overjoyed," Walker said. "That's the way we love it. We love for people to disrespect us and underestimate us."
One thing that will not be underestimated is Tennessee's running game with Lewis back in uniform. The 6-foot, 225-pound tailback had 497 yards (6.8 yards per carry) last year before he was hurt. In 1997, he ran for 1,364 yards as a freshman and was proclaimed a future all-American and first-round NFL draft pick. Lewis didn't participate in spring drills, but his teammates insist he is as quick as he was before the injury.
Lewis's return pushes his 1998 replacement, Travis Henry, back to a reserve role. Henry gained 970 yards in his nine games as the featured back in the offense so it will be difficult for the Volunteers to merely cast him aside. Tennessee will experiment with a backfield formation that will include both Lewis and Henry.
"Travis is the running back that took us to the national championship," Martin said. "I wouldn't forget about Travis Henry right now. He looks even better now than he did last year."
It's clear Tennessee will be a run-first team with Lewis, Henry and a formidable offensive line. "I feel really good about our fronts on both sides of the ball," Fulmer said. "The offensive line could be the best offensive line we've had since I've been at Tennessee. There are three seniors on the offensive front and three seniors on the defensive front and all have a chance to be pros."
There are some potential road blocks for the Volunteers. Star wideout and Fiesta Bowl hero Price is in the NFL and the only proven receiver returning is Cedrick Wilson. Middle linebacker Chris Ramseur, projected to replace Wilson, was suspended for academic reasons and while his teammates say Ramseur will play, Fulmer has been noncommittal.
"Who will replace Al Wilson is a question we don't have answered right now," Fulmer said.
While Wilson, who was drafted by Denver, got most of the attention last season because of his fiery leadership, the best player on the defense was right linebacker Raynoch Thompson, a 6-3, 217-pound junior, one of eight returning starters on defense. Walker, a nose tackle, is being projected as a first-round draft pick and junior free safety Deon Grant is an all-SEC caliber player. It is a fast and aggressive group that won't give up many points. But as good as Tennessee should be this season on defense and with the running game, the Volunteers could still end up with one more loss than last year. The Vols have to play Florida on Sept. 18 in Gainesville and Tennessee hasn't won in "The Swamp" since 1971 (six straight defeats). Fulmer was a guard on the last Tennessee team to win at Florida.
"We want to go down in history as the team that broke the streak in the swamp," Martin said.