Phil Fulmer might have the toughest task he's faced in his 14-year stint as head coach of Tennessee. The Volunteers are not use to being under .500 at this point of the season and could sink further below that level with a trip to eighth-ranked Notre Dame set for this weekend.
"As I said yesterday with coach (Randy) Sanders stepping aside, there is no one person at fault for all this, and it very much has to start with me," Fulmer said. "I've never been one to shirk that responsibility. (These are) tough times. When you have those things, those are when the when the greatest lessons are learned, and I think we're certainly going through that right now. Would we like have to have those few plays back to make again? Certainly, we would. Then we wouldn't be going through all this turmoil. But that's not life."
The offense has been the main culprit for the Volunteer slide this season. A dominating defense that is ranked 12th nationally has got no support from the other side of the ball. Tennessee is averaging only 16 points per games and is 99th in total offense. They are 98th in rushing and 79th in passing. These numbers are not what the Volunteer offense is accustomed to accumulating.
A closer look at their losses might explain these lagging numbers. Tennessee has lost to Florida, Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina. The Volunteers have not been going up against chop liver. Those first three teams are all ranked in the top 13 in the Associated Press Poll but more importantly, all ranked in the top 8 nationally in total defense. A few breaks here and there and Tennessee could be looking at 6-1.
The loss last week, though, to South Carolina was the killer. Everybody knows the history between Fulmer and his long-time nemesis, Steve Spurrier, who now roams the sidelines for the Gamecocks. Spurrier going into Knoxville and adding injury to insult by beating the Volunteers marks the low point in the Tennessee season. They must now try to regroup on the road against a resurgent Notre Dame team.
"We will do all that we possibly can to win these next four games, starting with Notre Dame," Fulmer said. "The bottom line of it is we've got to make some plays. We've got to make some plays that help us win the ballgame. Notre Dame is a very fine football team. When you watch them on tape you have to admire what they've done."
The Irish offense will no doubt face their toughest test on defense with a Volunteer group that knows how to get after the quarterback. Tennessee's front seven already has 19 sacks and 30 quarterback hurries on the season. The team has notched 53 tackles for loss, including 10 last week in their loss to South Carolina. One important point: All-American defensive back candidate Jason Allen was lost for the season with a hip injury sustained during the Georgia game. 5-9 sophomore Inquoris Johnson has replaced Allen at the right cornerback position and figures to challenged this weekend against Notre Dame's Jeff Samardzija and Maurice Stovall, both tall targets.
"Notre Dame has two 6-5 receivers that are good players," Fulmer said. "We'll go back to school and get our scout-team guys out there who are taller guys and make sure that (our defensive players) get a look what they'll be facing."
As stated above, the defense is the strength of this team. One of the uncertainties of the squad is the quarterback position. Sophomore Erik Ainge and Rick Clausen both have been unable to distinguish themselves as Tennessee's starting quarterback. Fulmer has had to play musical chairs at this position. Clausen has seen the majority of action this year, completing 59 percent of his passes for only three touchdowns and four interceptions. Ainge has a dismal 41 percent completion rate and has not justified the hype coming out of high school. Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis has to prepare his team for seeing both quarterbacks at some point of the game.
"Not having a lefty quarterback in practice, that is a little bit of a problem because obviously there are plays designed for a righty quarterback and lefty quarterback that are different than just your regular drop back passes," Weis said. "You're counting on your scout team guys to do a good job. Our coaching staff really tries to identify, here are the Clausen plays, here are the Ainge plays, or here are the plays that they'd call regardless of whether it was Clausen or Ainge. It forces you to break down Tennessee a little bit different because there are certain things that each one of those does better than the other."
Tennessee can make a bad season good on Saturday with a victory. A road win against a top-10 opponent can make Volunteer fans forget the close losses and bad breaks for a week. The pressure is on but Fulmer knows that a great effort from his players can make all the difference in changing the momentum of the season.
"Have we played our best football of the season yet?" Fulmer asked. "No. I don't think that we have. If we put all the pieces together and play really well, we'd certainly hope to go into Notre Dame and turn this thing around that's going on with our team right now."