There's no question Lane Kiffin's brash style has shaken Tennessee from its doldrums that marked the end of predecessor Phillip Fulmer's tenure.
The Volunteers put aside many off-field distractions to close the season strong, though there's another one lurking as they wrap up Kiffin's first season at the Chick-fil-A Bowl against 12th-ranked Virginia Tech on Thursday in Atlanta.
On Dec. 1, 2008, a backsliding Tennessee program turned to Kiffin - fired by the Oakland Raiders four games into the 2008 season. He was hired after Fulmer was forced out, having reached only one SEC title game in his final four years after making five from 1997-2004 and winning a national championship in 1998.
The outspoken Kiffin has had a series of public gaffes and missteps. Among them was a reprimand from the SEC following his criticism of officials after a 12-10 loss at No. 1 Alabama that came down to the final play, arguably the Crimson Tide's toughest win en route to the BCS title game.
Recently, the NCAA has begun an investigation into the school's Orange Pride group for possible off-campus recruiting violations, though Kiffin thinks the increased scrutiny means Tennessee is moving in the right direction.
"I think when it comes to recruiting, we're at the highest level, and I think that people really want to know what we're doing," Kiffin said. "They want to know how are we able to get interest from so many great players, and sign so many great players, so I think you have a lot of people coming at us."
On the field, the Oct. 24 loss to the Crimson Tide may have been a turning point for the Volunteers (7-5), who have since won four of five games. Tennessee averaged 33.0 points and 410.0 yards in those games, with quarterback Jonathon Crompton improving down the stretch while senior Montario Hardesty finished with 1,306 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns.
Hardesty rushed for 586 yards and six TDs in the final five games, including 179 yards and three scores as the Vols closed the regular season with a 30-24 overtime victory at Kentucky to finish tied for second in the SEC East.
Safety Eric Berry - named the Jim Thorpe Award winner as the country's best defensive back - anchors the Tennessee defense. The Atlanta native was second on the team with 83 tackles, six for losses, to go with his two interceptions and two fumble recoveries.
Berry's 14 interceptions rank fifth in school history and third among active NCAA players. The junior said Tuesday his decision about entering the draft is "kind of made,'' but will not announce his intentions until after the game.
Kiffin knows Berry's versatility, both as a defender and as a premier special teams player for the Vols, has him on the mind of many NFL scouts.
"Eric's played man-to-man coverage, we've blitzed him, he's played back in the middle and he's played down," Kiffin said. "So to be able to do all those things and then also to play on our special teams as many snaps as he has, he's created a lot of draft value for himself.''
As Kiffin tries to rebuild Tennessee, coach Frank Beamer continues to keep Virginia Tech humming. The Hokies (9-3) are appearing in a bowl for the 17th consecutive year, the third-longest active streak among FBS teams.
After finishing second to Georgia Tech in the ACC's Coastal Division, Virginia Tech makes its third trip to Atlanta in 2009 after a season-opening 34-24 defeat to Alabama in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game and a 28-23 loss to the Yellow Jackets on Oct. 17.
"This really is a dream matchup," said Chick-fil-A Bowl president Gary Stokan. "To have the opportunity to host two nationally significant and traditional teams in Virginia Tech and Tennessee says a lot about the quality of this game. We feel like we've got one of the most compelling matchups outside the BCS."
Like the Vols, the Hokies feature a standout tailback. Ryan Williams rushed for 1,538 yards, eighth-most by a freshman in NCAA history, en route to ACC rookie of the year honors. Williams set a freshman conference record with 20 overall touchdowns.
"I have to give a lot of credit to the offensive line and the wide receivers and the fullbacks because they helped pave the way for a lot of stats I got this year," said Williams, who ran for 608 yards and nine scores as the Hokies ended the regular season on a four-game win streak.
In his first season as a full-time quarterback, Tyrod Taylor better established himself as a pocket passer and finished with career highs of 2,102 yards and 13 touchdowns while throwing only four interceptions in 226 attempts. He did run for 738 yards as a sophomore in 2008, but also was picked off seven times in 173 passes.
Virginia Tech is making its fourth Chick-fil-A Bowl appearance and first since a 31-24 loss to Georgia in 2006. It's Tennessee's first appearance since 2003 and fifth all-time.
The Vols lead the series 5-2, but the schools have not met since 1994.