PREVIEW: LSU vs. Tennessee - SEC Title Game

Why not Tennessee? Consider: USC lost to 41-point underdog Stanford but could still play in the Rose Bowl if it beats UCLA on December 1.

Michigan lost to I-AA Appalachian State but was still in contention for the Big 10 Championship (and the other Rose Bowl spot) until its final game of the season.

So why shouldn't the SEC East's participant in the conference title game be a team that lost by 14 points to California, by 39 points to Florida, and by 24 points to Alabama?

In this wild and wacky season, what else would you expect?

To say the Volunteers' 2007 season has been a rollercoaster ride would not be doing it justice. After opening with a 45-31 loss to Cal, Tennessee bounced back with a 39-19 win over Southern Miss before being blown out 59-20 at the hands of the Gators. How did they respond? By blowing out Georgia by 21 points three weeks later, of course.

The rest of the season was a two-horse race in the East with Georgia and the Vols jockeying for the top spot. With the win over Georgia giving it the tiebreaker, in the end all Tennessee had to do was defeat Vanderbilt (perennial East whipping boys) and Kentucky (owners of a 23-game losing streak to the Volunteers) to book a trip to Atlanta.

Easy, right?

Not this year.

Tennessee 25, Vanderbilt 24 – where the Vols were down 15 points in the fourth quarter, did not take the lead until a field goal with 2:46 left gave them a one-point edge, and then hung on to watch as a potential Commodore game-winner missed by inches with 33 seconds left.

And then …

Tennessee 52, Kentucky 50 – where the Vols blew a 17-point lead but held on to win in the fourth overtime period.

"Our team has some shortcomings in some areas, but heart and fight's not one of them," said head coach Phil Fulmer after the marathon, five-hour win over the Wildcats.

For the Volunteers, a win in the Georgia Dome would be an unlikely finishing touch on a season that has seemed inches away from unraveling all year long. At 1-2, everyone not named Fulmer in Knoxville was calling for the coach's head. Now Tennessee is 60 minutes away from its first BCS bowl game since the 2000 Fiesta Bowl.

For LSU, it was supposed to be the final hit-out before the ultimate brass ring, the BCS Championship Game. Ranked No. 1 in the nation, all the Tigers had to do was defeat unranked and 13-point underdog Arkansas at home and then beat the schizophrenic Vols before preparing for a January 8 title game showdown with West Virginia/Missouri/ Ohio State. Now LSU has all the energy of a deflated balloon, and the Tigers have a week to convince themselves that the "other" Sugar Bowl game is a worthy consolation alternative to the Sugar Bowl game.

Two teams. Two different motivations. One goal: a New Year's Day game in New Orleans.

Tennessee is led by senior quarterback Erik Ainge, who in 2006 broke Peyton Manning's school record for completion percentage by completing 67 percent of his passes. This year, Ainge is humming along at 64 percent with 2,908 yards and 27 touchdowns to just eight interceptions. At 26-9-0, Ainge sits behind only Manning (39) and Casey Clausen (34) on Tennessee's all-time wins list, and his five 300-yard passing games are testimony to his ability as a signal caller.

Ainge's Volunteers are a good-but-not-great bunch, ranking 53rd nationally in total offense and 22nd in scoring offense. Junior wideout Lucas Taylor is the top-ranked receiver in the SEC with 71 catches for 975 yards and five touchdowns, while Austin Rogers is close behind with 51 catches for 567 yards and four scores.

Five other players have multiple receiving touchdowns in 2007, including senior tight end Chris Brown (5) and junior receiver Josh Briscoe (4). Running back Arian Foster has two touchdowns coming out of the backfield.

Foster, the sixth-ranked running back in the SEC, leads the Vols on the ground with 1,107 yards and 12 touchdowns and a 5.3 yards per carry average. Monterio Hardesty has replaced dismissed running back LaMarcus Coker as Foster's backup and has carried the ball 82 times for 338 yards and three scores.

Ainge and Foster are helped by having one of the best offensive lines in the nation, as evidenced by their IA-leading four sacks allowed through 12 games. Foster's 118-yard performance against Kentucky was the sixth 100-yard effort by a Volunteer running back in 2007, despite the fact that three linemen are playing in positions unfamiliar to them.

Left tackle Chris Scott is a converted right guard, Jacques McClendon is the new right guard, while Anthony Parker – the 2006 right guard – this year is manning the left guard spot. Sophomore center Josh McNeil was a unanimous Freshman All-SEC pick in 2006.

Tennessee ranks 71st nationally in total defense at 402.92 yards per game and is weaker against the pass (83rd) than it is against the run (64th).

The defense ranks last in the SEC in tackles for loss, and is 11th in pass, pass efficiency, scoring, and total defense. As a unit, they are tied for eighth in the conference in takeaways with 21, 14 of which were interceptions. Freshman strong safety Eric Berry leads the team with four picks, while 10 other players have one each.

Backup right end Robert Ayers leads the team with three sacks, while starting right end Antonio Reynolds, middle linebacker Ellix Wilson, free safety Ricardo Kemp, and left tackle Delmonte Bolden have two each. Middle linebacker Jerod Mayo is the leading tackler with 112, while weakside 'backer Rico McCoy is close behind with 98.

Punter Britton Colquitt averages 42.18 yards per kick, while the kick return units rank first in the SEC in kickoff returns (24.3 yards per return) and fifth in punt returns (9.46 with one touchdown).

Freshman kicker and Lou Groza Award finalist Daniel Lincoln is 47-of-48 on PATs and is hitting more than 80 percent of his field goal chances, including 70 percent from 40-49 yards, with a season long of 48 yards. His 21 field goals are the third most in a single season in Tennessee history, and he needs just 11 more points to move into second place in Vols single-season history.

For Tennessee, a win in the SEC championship game would be a huge achievement in a season filled with improbable wins and crushing losses. Despite less-than-stellar numbers and a less-than-stellar record, Fulmer can quiet many of his critics with a win, and the Vols will be in no mood to go easy against a reeling Tiger team.

So, in a season where preseason No. 10 Louisville can go 5-6 and finish sixth in the Big East, and preseason No. 20 Nebraska can score 33 points per game but give up 40 six times (and 65 and 76 once each) and finish with a 5-7 record and an unemployed head coach, the question deserves to be asked again:

Why not Tennessee?

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