Miami tilt crucial for UT

Since Miami is a non-conference opponent, Saturday's game between Tennessee and the Hurricanes seemingly has no bearing on the title chase in the SEC East, which currently finds the Vols, Florida and Georgia tied with two losses each.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Because UT, Florida and Georgia stand 1-1 against one another, the No. 1 tiebreaker (head-to-head competition) does not break the logjam. Nor do tiebreakers 2, 3, 4, 5 or 6, which are too involved to detail here. Assuming the Vols, Gators and Dawgs win their remaining league games to finish 6-2 in conference play, the deadlock will be resolved by tiebreaker No. 7, which is a vote of the nine SEC athletics directors NOT involved in the three-way tie.

Obviously, if Tennessee loses to Miami and finishes 9-3, while Georgia wins out and finishes 10-2, the Bulldogs will have a higher national ranking PLUS a head-to-head win over Tennessee -- two factors which would make them a far more attractive option to the voting ADs. Conversely, a win at Miami would improve Tennessee's BCS ranking and bolster its chances of winning a vote to represent the East in the SEC Championship Game. So, even though Miami is a non-conference opponent, this Saturday's game at the Orange Bowl is vitally important to Tennessee's hopes of winning a division title.

''It certainly could turn out to be, as far as BCS rankings,'' Vol head man Phillip Fulmer said during his Sunday teleconference. ''We already have quality a win at Florida and a quality win at Alabama. But, obviously, this will be a big measuring stick for our team if we could go down there and get a win.''

Asked how he feels about the division race perhaps being determined by a vote of athletics directors, Fulmer paused thoughtfully before answering.

''I really hadn't thought a whole lot about it,'' he finally said. ''Everybody knows that's the system. As I understand it, the highest-ranked team would likely get the votes. That's the way you'd expect it to be. That's fair, I'd say.''

Tennessee's chances of beating Miami probably slipped a bit Saturday night. The Hurricanes were upset by Virginia Tech, so they are unlikely to come out flat against the Vols six days hence. Yet, when asked if he'd rather Miami had won last night, Fulmer hedged.

''I don't know,'' he said. ''They'd be trying to stay 1 or 2 (in the BCS rankings) if they'd won. Of course, now they feel they have something to prove. Either way, it was going to be demanding.''

Tailback Cedric Houston (ankle sprain) should be ready to play this Saturday but the Vols probably will be without two of their starting defensive players. Safety Rashad Baker, who missed Saturday's 23-6 defeat of Duke with a strained knee, is listed ''doubtful'' for the Miami game. And defensive tackle J.T. Mapu, who suffered a hyperextended elbow during the Duke game, is probably a longshot to play, although he's listed as ''questionable'' for this weekend.

'' "if J.T. can go, he'll go,'' Fulmer said. ''He's a tough guy. I'm not counting on that, though. Inside (tackle) is a tough place to play with a hyperextended elbow.''

Assuming Mapu can't play, who can fill the void at defensive tackle?

''I saw a little progress (vs. Duke) by Greg Jones, and that was encouraging,'' Fulmer said. ''He's still got to keep his pads down better. Justin Harrell did some good things. They're making progress but still not where they need to be.''

The other tackle, senior Mondre Dickerson, had a very good game vs. Duke, contributing six tackles, a sack and a pass breakup.

''Mondre continues to improve,'' Fulmer said. ''He had a big sack. I'm real encouraged about his continued improvement. He's the guy that people are going to pay the most attention to. That's going to give those other kids a chance to make some plays if they'll play with better technique and pad leverage, and if they'll play faster.''

Another encouraging development in the Duke game was the play of reserve tailback Gerald Riggs, Jr. He gained 31 yards on five carries and scored Tennessee's final touchdown on a 12-yard burst up the middle.

''It was good to see Gerald Riggs get some playing time,'' Fulmer conceded. ''Hopefully, we'll get the expected continued development and improvement. That'll be key for us as we go down the road. ''

Asked if Riggs showed enough vs. Duke to warrant consideration for more playing time, Fulmer responded affirmatively.

''Yeah, Gerald did show enough,'' the head man said. ''We're looking for consistency in practice and consistency in his daily life, and I think Gerald has made significant progress in those areas. He took a pretty good step last night, and that was good to see.''

Riggs seemed to provide a spark for an offense that needed nearly 50 minutes to score a touchdown vs. the lowly Blue Devils. Duke used up nearly the entire play clock before snapping the ball each time and ate up more clock by keeping the ball on the ground a lot (48 rushing plays). Fulmer thought these factors contributed significantly to Tennessee's paltry point total.

''Duke had a good plan, as far as using the clock,'' he said. ''They had a good plan to shorten the game, and did that. We only had 10 possessions in the game. Usually, you'll get 14 or so. We scored on five of those 10 possesions but three of them were field goals.''

Still, there are concerns regarding UT's offense. The Vols have scored more than 24 points in regulation just one time all season, and that was way back in Game 2 vs. Marshall (34-24). Asked where the Vol attack stands heading into Game 9, Fulmer struggled to reply.

''That's hard to answer,'' he said. ''Our team is playing hard. We've looked really good at times doing a number of things but we're not consistent enough on either side of ball yet to be all we want to be. WE're really trying to work at that.''

In truth, the Vols had some near-missed vs. Duke. Casey Clausen had some potential big gainers skip off the hands of receivers. And the Vols hurt themselves with 96 yards in penalties.

''It's a penalty here, almost a great catch there,'' Fulmer mused.

The Vols also came close to having a much stronger game defensively. Several times they had a play stuffed, only to see the ballcarrier bounce outside for a big gain.

''It was somebody not quite in position to play the bootleg or not being in position to react when a play bounces outside,'' Fulmer said. ''There was some good but we're just not as consistent as we'd like.''

The question arises: Isn't eight games too late in the season to be making these kinds of mistakes?

''It's different things at different times,'' Fulmer replied. ''It's not where you can say, 'OK, let's change this person or this scheme.' If we just make a better catch or a little better throw a couple of times in that first half, it changes the outlook of the game.''

Alas, the Vols didn't make a better catch or a better throw. After eight games, the close-but-no-cigar explanation is starting to wear thin. Vol fans have waited two months for an impressive offensive performance, and they're STILL waiting.

''We need a breakout,'' Fulmer conceded, ''and this (Miami game) would be a good time to do that. We'd better hurry because it's getting close to the end of the season.''

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