Vols set for 'character game'

Tennessee has lost two games in a row, including a 41-14 homefield humiliation at the hands of Georgia last time out. If the Vols are slipping, however, Alabama is in full-blown freefall. The Tide has lost four of its last five, including a 43-28 embarassment at Ole Miss last Saturday.

Thus, two programs battling to salvage their seasons and their pride meet Saturday in Tuscaloosa.

''This is a character game,'' UT head man Phillip Fulmer said. ''There's a lot to be determined, as far as how each team will remember this season.''

Incredibly, Tennessee could remember this season as the year it returned to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game. Surprising Florida could create a three-way tie in the SEC East lead if it beats Georgia 10 days hence in Jacksonville, giving UT a shot at claiming a division title that seemed out of reach just one week ago.

''We've talked about that,'' Fulmer said, ''but we have to take care of business first. We can't get the cart before the horse.''

Translation: The Vols have to beat Alabama this weekend or SEC title talk is wasted words.

''I've always enjoyed the Alabama game, whether I was a player, an assistant or a head coach,'' Fulmer said. ''I'd enjoy this one a lot more if our team can get to the level it needs to.''

Tennessee hasn't approached that level in recent weeks. The offense sputtered, particularly in the ground game (43 carries, 65 net yards) in Games 5 and 6. Meanwhile, the defense has surrendered 421 total yards to Auburn and 414 to Georgia the past two outings.

''Auburn shocked us defensively,'' Fulmer said, ''and I think we're still recovering some from that. The defense actually played pretty well against Georgia but we gave 'em (Dawgs) the short field three times (with turnovers).''

The bottom line, according to UT's head man, is this: ''Offensively, the team must execute better ... take care of the ball better. Defensively, we need to take the ball away better.''

Certainly, the giveaway/takeaway ratio is abysmal. Tennessee has committed 12 turnovers (7 interceptions, 5 fumbles) while forcing just 7 turnovers (5 interceptions, 2 fumbles).

If the Vols are to get back on the winning track this weekend, they'll need to execute better on offense than they did in last year's Bama game, when they were guilty of six turnovers.

''When you make six turnovers, you're going to get beat,'' Fulmer said. ''It was not a good effort, in terms of executing, on our part.''

Defensively, Tennessee must shut down Bama's big-play people, quarterback Brodie Croyle and tailback Shaud Williams.

''We've got to work hard to stop the run and not give up the big play,'' Fulmer noted. ''Against Arkansas, nearly half of their (Tide's) yards came on two plays.''

Complicating matters for UT's head man are charges from Alabama-based attorney Tommy Gallion implicating Fulmer in some financial dealings with ex-Vols John Henderson and Travis Henry that allegedly violated NCAA rules.

Fulmer said the charges are ''not much of a factor'' in terms of affecting game preparations, then added: ''It's not something you want to put up with but we've turned it over to compliance (Malcolm McInnis of the UT compliance office).... I'm totally focused on what we've got to do to win this game.''

Tennessee carries a 4-2 overall record and 2-2 SEC mark into Saturday's game against the Tide (3-5, 1-3). The Vols must play much better than they have in recent weeks to win, however.

''I don't think anybody's sticking their head in teh sane and saying everything's OK,'' Fulmer said. ''We've got issues to continue to address, and we will.''

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