TAMPA — With its Outback Bowl matchup against Northwestern fast approaching, there is an elevated sense of confidence among Tennessee's players.
Riding a five-game win streak, the Volunteers come into Friday's game at Raymond James Stadium with momentum.
But they also have something else that has been lacking in recent seasons: Postseason experience.
For the first time since 2006-07 — when College Football Hall of Famer Phillip Fulmer was at the helm as coach — the Vols are playing in a bowl in back-to-back seasons. They defeated Iowa 45-28 in the Taxslayer Bowl last season to finish with their first winning record (7-6) since 2009 and earn their first bowl victory since the 2007 Outback.
Senior DB Brian Randolph, who enters second on the Vols with 67 tackles, said Sunday the team knows what to expect.
"I feel like it's actually easier," Randolph said. "Experience is always the best teacher. We've got a little experience, we know what to expect this year. We know how practice is going to be. We know what the schedule is going to be like. I feel like (this) year is going to be better for us."
Coach Butch Jones believes his team will reap the benefits of that mind-set on game day, but said there is room for improvement.
"This football team has been focused so much," he said. "I've challenged their maturity. We've challenged their leadership and, so far, they've responded.
"I like where we're at, but we still have a long way to go in this week of preparation."
D IS THE KEY: One of the main reasons Northwestern secured 10 victories for the first tie since 2012 was its dominance on defense.
Led by redshirt sophomore LB Anthony Walker (19.5 tackles for loss) and senior CB Nick VanHoose (three interceptions), the Wildcats rank third in Division I-A in passing efficiency defense (98.27) and 11th in total defense. Northwestern also gave up just five passing touchdowns in the regular season, the fewest in the nation.
"I think it was a combination of physicality up front and just an experienced defensive back corps," said senior DE Dean Lowry, who ranks among the top 10 in program history in career sacks (121/2).
"I think guys … really stepped up in the backfield and we just had guys that could come on."
THIS AND THAT: Both teams combined to consume more than 5,000 pounds of food during Saturday's welcome dinner at A La Carte Pavilion. The feast included 750 pounds of steak, 700 pounds of salad and 1,200 pounds of cheesecake. … The teams participated in a bowling competition at Splitsville at Channelside Bay Plaza on Sunday and will visit the children's wing of Tampa General Hospital today.