SEC FOOTBALL: Much Ado About Tennessee

The Gator Nation has a game with Vanderbilt to be concerned about today but an even more fascinating question Florida fans are wrestling with concerns the team from Knoxville, not Nashville: should Gators be rooting for Tennessee against Notre Dame?

One could discuss this matter to no end.

Think about it: do you want Philip Fulmer to leave Rocky Top? Yes, he's not the smartest man alive, and yes, he's coached his team quite poorly this season. Sure, he rode Peyton Manning's coattails and benefited from the notable leadership of Tee Martin. Still, Fulmer's won a lot of big games and, until very recently, presided over a program that regularly churned out wins in an incredibly cutthroat conference. He is pilloried and pounded by many, but there were times when Fulmer was regarded as one of General Neyland's foremost disciples, a reverent reference in the Deep South. These last few seasons in Knoxville have chipped away at his overall legacy, but he's still won a national title and --- this hurts to say it --- done more than Johnny Majors, who was so cruelly forced out to make way for Fulmer in 1992. Yes, he's been tainted by off-field events regarding the police blotter and NCAA investigations regarding the University of Alabama, but on the field, you have to give Fulmer his due when all is said and done. He took a long time, but he eventually did catch up with Florida in the late 1990s, pushing his program to be better after the Gators set the SEC's gold standard in the early and middle portions of the 90s. His persistence and stubbornness --- while sometimes serving as his foremost weaknesses --- have usually been his greatest strengths. Hyperbolic ridicule aside, he'll be remembered as a particularly good coach in the annals of SEC and college football history.

Do you want Fulmer, genuinely teetering after a certain nemesis (who shall remain unnamed until the Vandy game ends; only then will discussion of "that man" and "that team" begin...) beat him the previous week, to get embarrassed by the Irish and find himself in an even deeper mess of trouble? Do you want the Fulmer era to unravel?

Yes, if Fulmer finds himself on the hot seat after this season and is unable to make the grade next year, he could find himself looking for work at the end of 2006. Two straight seasons around the .500 mark (and it's hard to imagine UT stinking up the joint two straight seasons; one has to think Fulmer will right the ship in '06), and even Charlie Brown would fire the Great Pumpkin. A bad loss at Notre Dame, on the heels of a loss to "that man," could serve as the catalyst for unusually large pressure on Fulmer. This could mean that in 2007, the Vols will have a coach who could usher in the same kind of complex, systemic transition and program-wide upheaval that Urban Meyer has necessarily had to bring to Gainesville, cleaning out the debris from the Zook Error.

The good side is that Tennessee doesn't seem to be ready to be an elite team anytime soon. But if a new coach were to come to Knoxville, that coach could be a stud. No Gator coach wants a stud in Neyland Stadium, so short-term comfort might pale in comparison to the long-term worry that could emerge if UT finds Mr. Right.

Do you want Tennessee to fall off the proverbial cliff in South Bend? Keep thinking... you might want to hate UT just enough to want Fulmer to stay on. Something about "the devil you know," right?

But then there's this other consideration: Tennessee is fighting for the honor of the SEC against Charlie Weis. If Tennessee stuffs the Irish offense, the reputation of the SEC's defenses will skyrocket. But if the Irish overwhelm Jesse Mahelona and Company, the nation will surely pounce on the quality of defenses in this corner of the country. Perhaps the best attitude is to hope for a 9-7 Notre Dame victory, but it's hard to imagine ND winning if the score is incredibly low.

The point is clear: it's not an easy call for Gator fans on the matter of approaching this Tennessee-Notre Dame game. On one hand, a coaching empire could be in danger of falling into genuine hot seat territory for the first time. On the other hand, the SEC's honor--particularly with respect to defense ---is at stake.

A lot to think about before they tee it off in South Bend, to be sure.


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