The day after Auburn upset Florida the previous Saturday, Tennessee coach Phil Fulmer set the tone for his players in a team meeting.
"I actually said, 'War Damn
Eagle,"' Fulmer said. "That's the first thing I said, to be honest with you."
The Vols got his point. With
losing, the SEC East Division race was once again wide open.
"It's a new ballgame in the SEC
East race right now," Fulmer said. "We need to take advantage of it and do our
part, and we can only do that by getting better where we need to get better and
get ready and just focus on Georgia."
That's exactly what the Vols did
last week. After an open date that gave Tennessee a chance to start over following a 2-2 start
that included decisive road losses to Cal and
Vols did just that. The result was an impressive 35-14 victory over a
Georgia team that had won
three consecutive games at Tennessee's Neyland Stadium.
"We needed it," said senior
quarterback Erik Ainge. "A win is a win, but when you win it like that ... 35-14
doesn't really show what the game was like."
What it was ... was dominating,
with the Vols opening up a 28-0 halftime lead and rarely giving Georgia any
breathing room in any phase of the game. The running game laid the foundation on
offense with 190 yards, the defense held Georgia to 243
yards and the special teams blocked a punt without giving up any big
For a team that had a lot to prove,
the performance proved a lot. It might not make Tennessee the instant favorite to win the East
or even solve all of the Vols', but it sure makes a statement that no one inside
the football program is giving up.
"There was a lot of apprehension
going in," Fulmer said. "They were excited and anxious to prove people who might
have been doubting us wrong."
Every team talks about starting
over after a poor start but not every team can do it. Auburn is doing it. If
last Saturday was any indication the Vols are doing it, too. Suddenly, the
parameters and the possibilities have changed.
"It was huge from a confidence
standpoint and, as everybody knows, the SEC East is wide open," tailback Arian Foster said. "We'd had enough."
There's still a lot of work to do
be and a lot of football to be played, but as the SEC enters the second half of
the season this is how the East stands:
- South Carolina: At 3-1 in the SEC, the Gamecocks own victories over
Georgia and Kentucky and a loss at
top-ranked LSU. That still leaves big games Tennessee and Florida, two teams
South Carolina can beat if it can continue to improve in the passing game and
not lose any more stars (such as injured linebacker Jasper Brinkley).
As coach Steve Spurrier said when
he took over at South Carolina three years ago, "why not us?"
"I feel really good," said redshirt
freshman quarterback Chris Smelley, who has replaced struggling senior Blake Mitchell as the Gamecocks' starter. "I think we are controlling our own
- Kentucky: At 1-1 in the SEC, Kentucky still has six
SEC teams left on its schedule.
Unfortunately for the Wildcats, the
next two opponents are LSU and Florida. Fortunately for the Wildcats, both
games are at home. Then again, it might not matter where those games are played.
Consecutive victories over Louisville and
Arkansas were impressive, but as last week's
38-23 loss to South
Carolina showed, the Wildcats won't win the East without
a better defense or a near-perfect offense – or some combination of both.
"We're 5-1," Kentucky coach Rich
Brooks said. "We're in great position. We're still in the battle. If you told
the team that they'd be 5-1 after six games, maybe they'd be a little
disappointed, but you know that's a pretty good deal."
- Tennessee: A controversial story in
last Saturday's Knoxville News-Sentinel quote several anonymous former players
who said the program had slipped in recent years, questioned the direction of
the program and wondered if Fulmer and his coaching staff could get things back
on the right track. Fulmer, his coaches and his players have been under constant
attack since a 59-20 loss at Florida on Sept.
15 and their response against Georgia was firm and
The temptation here is to get a
little carried away and believe the Vols have cured all their ills but those
former players, even the ones who refused to speak on the record, might be right
about a few things. Still, the Georgia game says a lot about what
the Vols can do when everyone is on the same page and committed to doing things
the right way.
"Tennessee was 2-2, but they played some pretty doggone
good teams," Georgia coach Mark Richt said.
"Florida is a very good team, we all know that,
and Cal is a
pretty good team, we all know that. No one seems to want to give the other teams
any credit. Tennessee is a good football team."
That could take the Vols a long way
this fall. They can't change those two losses but they're capable of winning all
of their remaining games.
"It's only a start for us - a step
in the right direction," Fulmer said, "but I'm really proud to get this
- Georgia: At 2-2, the Bulldogs are
a tough team to read.
The team that lost to South Carolina and Tennessee didn't look anything like the team that won in
overtime at Alabama or dominated the second half against
Ole Miss. Richt said, "I believe we're a better football team than what showed
up today," but believing it isn't enough.
With Florida and Auburn still left on the schedule, it's hard to
imagine the Bulldogs coming out on top in the SEC East at this point.
"You really can't look at the big
picture right now," safety Kelin Johnson said. "You have to look at what we have
to do to be better as a football team. Every win counts right now. Taking
control of the East, that's the last thing on our mind right now."
- Florida: Oh yes, the Gators. Two weeks ago
the Gators were commonly referred to as the "defending national champion Gators"
or the "third-ranked Gators." Now, at 2-2 in the SEC, they are the "reeling
Gators" following losses to Auburn and Florida.
Should any of us be that surprised.
Between all the players lost from their national championship team, the lack of
seniors and juniors and injuries, this is a young team – too young to make a run
at another national title. An SEC East title may be too much to ask,
Then again, Auburn needed a last-second field goal to beat Florida and LSU had to convert two fourth-down runs on its
game-winning drive against Florida and didn't take the lead until 1:09
remained in the game, so it's not like the Gators are falling apart.
"I do believe we're a better
football team than we were at the beginning of the year," Florida coach Urban Meyer
said. "I don't know if I've ever done this, but I guarantee we'll be back. The
Florida Gators will be back. Smokin'."
At this point it might not matter
how hot the Gators get. A look ahead suggests the Florida-Georgia on Oct. 27 has
been replaced as the most important SEC East game on the remaining SEC schedule.
Instead, the critical game could be Tennessee-South Carolina the same day in
"That should be a barn-burner,"
Richt said. "South
Carolina's defense has been playing pretty well all year
long and their offense is getting better and better. I think it's just going to
be a really tight match up."
Richard Scott is a
Birmingham-based sports writer, author and featured columnist in Tiger Rag.
Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.