Tennessee's unexpected absence from last season's bowl lineup caused Robert Meachem to make a New Year's resolution.
The Tennessee wide receiver planned to ring in 2007 by preparing for a BCS game instead of sitting in front of the television.
"We weren't used to sitting home and watching bowl games," Meachem said. "We were used to playing in bowl games. That was all the motivation we needed."
That motivation has helped make Meachem one of the nation's most improved players.
Once in danger of being labeled a bust, the former five-star prospect now ranks second in the nation with 112.5 receiving yards per game. Meachem has emerged as a major reason the seventh-ranked Volunteers (5-1) enter Saturday's game against Alabama (5-2) with legitimate BCS aspirations.
He has come a long way from that disappointing day last fall at Notre Dame.
Meachem considers last year's Notre Dame game his biggest disappointment in a season full of them. He failed to catch a couple of deep passes in the Volunteers' 41-21 loss.
"My mom would tell you, and anyone else who really knows me will tell you, that I'm my own worst critic," Meachem said. "I played that game over in my head all the time. I probably could have changed the game if I'd caught those balls.''
That loss to Notre Dame completed a four-game skid that caused Tennessee to go 5-6 after entering the year as the No. 3 team in the nation.
Meachem made sure neither he nor his team delivered a repeat performance this fall. The junior receiver says he worked three times as hard as usual during the offseason.
He lifted more weights.
He watched more film.
When he popped in a video for a study session, Meachem didn't limit himself to Tennessee game tapes. He instead tried to find out what made Terrell Owens, Steve Smith and other All-Pro receivers so great.
Meachem also listened to advice from Tennessee legend and current Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning.
"I want to be known as a great receiver, not someone who was just good," Meachem said. "I wanted to see how they worked, how they practiced, how they studied. I got to run with Peyton sometimes in the summer. He'd just tell us how Marvin Harrison and those guys worked so hard.''
Meachem already knew a thing or two about hard work.
While growing up in Tulsa, Okla., Meachem woke up as early as 5:30 a.m. on weekends to assist with a family farm that included cattle and chickens.
"It was training your horses, trying to feed the chickens, roping calves," Meachem said. "Everything that you see in a cowboy rodeo, I was doing that as a young kid."
This cowboy-in-training also developed into quite an athlete.
Meachem played point guard on a two-time state championship basketball team at Booker T. Washington High in Tulsa, but he proved even better at football. Rivals.com rated him as the No. 3 receiver – behind only Florida's Andre Caldwell and ex-Gator star Chad Jackson – in the 2003 recruiting class.
Although Meachem had a perennial national championship contender playing in his home state, Tennessee lured him away from Oklahoma.
Better than ever
Tennessee wide receiver Robert Meachem's progress this season has reflected the improvement of his team. Here's a look at his year-by-year statistics:
"I wanted to grow up," Meachem said. "I wanted to get more mature than I was. I figured if I went to OU, my mom would have been right down the street. I could have gone, 'Mom, I need this,' or 'Dad, I need that.' I wanted to learn how to live and struggle all at the same time."
He has since started his own family.
The birth of his daughter, Adrianna, in the summer of 2005 gave Meachem even more incentive to live up to the expectations that accompanied his arrival at Tennessee.
"I work 110 percent every practice and give it all I've got every time," Meachem said. "With her being born, I give it about 150 percent. I want her to know that she has someone right here. I don't want to be one of those fathers who just sends their child gifts and doesn't ever see them. I want to be there for her."
Meachem wasn't an immediate success at Tennessee, but the new father now looks like a new player. A couple of changes helped him write one of the season's greatest comeback stories.
First, the arrivals of offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe and receivers coach Trooper Taylor – who mentored Tennessee's running backs last year – helped revitalize the Volunteers'
Meachem also finally found himself working primarily with one quarterback.
Erik Ainge and Brent Schaeffer had split time at quarterback two years ago. Ainge shared the job with Rick Clausen last season.
With Ainge as the unquestioned starter this season, Meachem didn't have to change his game to adapt to whichever quarterback was throwing the ball.
"He always knew he was real good, but he had three quarterbacks in two years throwing him passes,'' Ainge said. "It's hard to get in a rhythm with somebody when you do that. Me and him got on the same page and understood each other. The more we threw, the more confidence we got in each other. You could kind of see it grow and grow.
"He just knew where the ball was going to be, so his routes got better. His speed got better. Everything got better. When I saw that, I was real excited."
The change was immediately apparent.
Meachem caught five passes for 182 yards in a season-opening 35-18 triumph over California. He had a 42-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter, then turned a simple 5-yard pass into an 80-yard score in the third period.
That game set the tone for the rest of the season.
Meachem has caught 34 passes for 675 yards and six touchdowns in Tennessee's first six games. He already owns career highs in receptions and receiving yards, and he has doubled his career touchdown total.
The 6-foot-3 junior finally is living up to his extraordinary potential.
"(He had) an OK freshman season and really for him and what he could have done – much like our team – a subpar year last year," Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said. "That talent, that big body and work ethic - those things didn't go away. Now he's just playing with great confidence."
Meachem has teamed up with Jayson Swain to give Tennessee one of the nation's top pass-catching tandems. New Mexico State's Chris Williams and Derek Dubois are the only duo with more receiving yards per game.
"We're like brothers on and off the field," said Swain, who has caught 22 passes for 378 yards and five touchdowns. "If he does something wrong or I do something wrong, we'll be quick to correct each other. We can take constructive criticism from each other."
So far this year, they've done little wrong.
Meachem has emerged as one of Georgia Tech star Calvin Johnson's top challengers for the Biletnikoff Award that goes to the nation's best receiver. Meachem led the nation in receiving until Oklahoma State's Adarius Bowman moved to the top of the charts with a 300-yard performance last week.
His struggles last year should make this season of redemption even more rewarding, but Meachem refuses to dwell on his accomplishments.
"I'm never going to be satisfied," Meachem said. "When you go to heaven, that's when you get satisfied."
Meachem isn't quite there yet, but he has helped lead the Volunteers out of college football purgatory.
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