Building for the future
Young, talented Vols already have sights set on 2001
DALLAS (AP) -- Despite being ranked No. 21, the Tennessee Volunteers could come out of the Cotton Bowl with a Top 5 ranking.
The catch is, they'll have to wait until the next preseason poll.
Tennessee has been playing for next season since starting this season 2-3. The Vols then made freshman Casey Clausen their quarterback and their future has gotten brighter every week.
Clausen carries a 6-0 record into Monday's game against No. 11 Kansas State (10-3), easily the best team he's faced. How he and a defense led by junior lineman John Henderson, the Outland Trophy winner, handle the challenge will say a lot about Tennessee's outlook for the 2001 season.
"We've wondered what would have happened if we had put Casey in earlier, but he hadn't shown that he was ready," Vols offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said. "Had he not been hurt at the start of the summer, he may have been our quarterback from Day One."
Tennessee and Kansas State would've played for the national title two years ago if the Wildcats hadn't lost in the Big 12 championship. That group let the loss in the conference title game carry into the Alamo Bowl and they were upset by Purdue.
This time, Kansas State again is coming off a loss to Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship.
Immediately after that game, coach Bill Snyder had players vote on whether to spend New Year's Day in Dallas. They unanimously accepted the invitation and vowed to be better prepared.
"Our belated national championship game?" defensive end Monty Beisel said. "No, nothing like that. What happened two years ago was heartbreaking, but it's something you can't take back. You learn from it and move on."
This is only the fifth time in the Cotton Bowl's 65-year history that neither team is from Texas or an adjoining state. The lack of a true home team, a 10 a.m. kickoff and a forecast of cold, wet weather kept the game from selling out as of Sunday.
Both teams appear evenly matched.
Clausen will be facing a defense that's ranked fourth in the country. Wildcats quarterback Jonathan Beasley will meet the nation's third-best run defense and a defensive front that set a school record with 50 sacks, including four in each of the final seven games.
Even the special teams are a draw. Kansas State's Jamie Rheem was second in voting for the Lou Groza Award for the nation's top kicker and Tennessee's Alex Walls was third. The Vols use punter David Leaverton's pinpoint placement as a field-position strategy, while the Wildcats have sensational punt returners in Aaron Lockett and David Allen.
Clausen enrolled at Tennessee in January to get a jump on the battle to replace Tee Martin as the Vols' quarterback. He impressed coaches from the start, then won over teammates during the summer.
Clausen's work ethic, talent and personality made him a natural leader. Even the 6-foot-7, 290-pound Henderson admits taking orders from the Californian called "Ice," "Ice Man," and "Vanilla Ice."
Clausen threw so much over the summer that he hurt his throwing shoulder. He didn't play until the third week, but then his first pass went for a 19-yard touchdown. He saw spot action the next two weeks, both losses, then became the starter in early October.
Clausen went 17-of-24 for 213 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions in his debut against Alabama. He drove the Vols to game-winning scores on their final drives each of the next two weeks, both on the road, then came home and tied a school record with five touchdown passes.
"It's hard to rattle him," running back Travis Henry said. "In the Alabama game, a guy knocked his helmet off and he went back and tried to charge that guy with his helmet off! Then he picked up his helmet, drove us and we scored. He already had my respect, but after that game he had everybody's respect."
Clausen has been compared to Peyton Manning, which is flattering except that Clausen, so far, has been better. He's broken Manning's freshman records for yards, completions, completion percentage and touchdowns.
Manning called Clausen after the Alabama game and they talked for 1 1/2 hours. They've spoken about once a week since, with Manning sharing tips on plays, opponents and even opposing crowds.
"I think the comparisons are premature," Clausen said. "I'm only a freshman."