The Volunteers might as well send out engraved notes: You are cordially invited to our national championship.... Even Neyland Stadium has been expanded—from 91,902 seats to 102,485—as if to host a gigantic party. Tennessee has the best quarterback in college football in junior Peyton Manning (page 108), one of the best tailbacks in school history (senior Jay Graham) and a pass rusher who is being favorably compared with former Vol Reggie White (junior Leonard Little). The schedule brings both Florida and Alabama to Knoxville, each after Tennessee has had a week off, and the Vols get eight days to prepare for their toughest road game, at Georgia on Oct. 12. In all, nine of the team's 11 regular-season games will be played within the borders of the state of Tennessee (the Vols face Mississippi in Memphis).
"I think people in Tennessee have always talked more about winning the Southeastern Conference, but never used then word," says Manning. Actually, it's two words, Peyton, and, as Manning himself says, "This year we should use the words: national championship."
Whether the Vols win that national title depends in large part on how well they recover from last September's 62-37 loss to Florida in Gainesville, a game they led 30-14 late in the second quarter. "Still don't know what happened," says junior wideout Marcus Nash. Tennessee won its last eight games and finished No. 3 in the nation, but by the numbers—that 25-point loss to No. 2 Florida, which subsequently lost to Nebraska by 38 in the Fiesta Bowl—the Vols were far from the top. "I prefer to think that we were 30 minutes away from playing for the national title," says Manning.
The core of the '95 team returns, beginning with Manning, who threw for a school-record 2.954 yards last fall. Also back are Manning's two leading receivers: senior Joey Kent, who had a school-record 69 catches for 1,055 yards, and Nash, a former high school All-America, who had 43 catches for 512 yards.
Graham, whose sister, Kim, won a gold medal in the 4x400-meter relay at the Atlanta Olympics, was a track star himself at Concord (N.C.) High. He rushed for a school-record 1,438 yards last fall, but two runs he never completed are the ones he remembers most vividly. His two fumbles in the third quarter of the Florida debacle led to 14 Gator points and accelerated Tennessee's collapse. "I think about the fumbles every day," he says.
This year Graham will run behind a line that has four new starters—Robert Poole, a 6'3", 291-pound tackle is the only returnee. But not to worry: The Vols always come up with a good offensive line, the way Brigham Young always finds a good quarterback. The newcomer being counted on most heavily is 6'5", 275-pound junior left tackle Trey Teague, who not only shares an apartment with Manning but now also must try to protect his blind side.
Fortunately for Teague and his colleagues, they'll have to line up opposite the tenacious Little only during the week. Little, whom Tennessee lists at 6'2", 230 pounds ("I weigh a lot more than that, really," he says), had 11 sacks last year. He came to Knoxville from Asheville, N.C, in the fall of 1993 but was sent home because he had not met the NCAA's minimum academic standards. He eventually spent a year at Coffeyville ( Kans.) Community College before returning to Tennessee last year. "The day they sent me home from here was the worst day of my life," he says. "I had two years with nothing to do but think about my future."
Tennessee players have had 12 months to think about their future. For them, a party lies ahead. RSVP, Sugar Bowl, New Orleans, La.