Granted, Tennessee did little in its first eight games to suggest it can hang with Miami Saturday at the Orange Bowl. The Vol offense is out of sync and the defense is inconsistent.
So why does Fulmer keep putting a positive spin on things? Duhhhhh ... that's his job. Tennessee fans realized the 2003 Vols aren't very good after last weekend's lackluster 23-6 defeat of lowly Duke. Fulmer probably realized as much weeks earlier, but he can't come out and say, ''We're not very good.'' That would damage team morale. Fulmer's challenge each week is to prepare his team physically, technically and PSYCHOLOGICALLY to win, so he continues to insist that the Vols are an inch away from catching some big passes, a cutback away from popping some big runs and a break away from posting some big wins.
Tech beat Miami by getting a big play from its offense (a 46-yard touchdown pass), two big plays from its defense (a fumble return TD and an interception return TD) and a big play from its special teams (a blocked field goal).
Tennessee is unlikely to get big plays from any of these three areas when it plays Miami. Here's why:
The top big-play threat among Vol receivers (James Banks) is a converted quarterback who still drops too many catchable balls and runs too many wrong routes. And the top big-play threat among Vol rushers (Gerald Riggs, Jr.) rarely gets to play because the coaching staff considers him less than dependable.
Defensively, Tennessee's lack of big plays (i.e. turnovers) is astounding. The Vols have intercepted just six passes and recovered just three fumbles all season, ranking them 96th nationally in turnover margin.
Meanwhile, Tennessee's return game has been mediocre. The Vols rank sixth among the 12 SEC teams in punt return average (10.6 yards) and in kickoff return average (21.1 yards). And they're a lowly 11th in kickoff coverage (allowing 24.2 yards per return).
None of this suggests Tennessee will beat Miami Saturday at the Orange Bowl. Vol fans recognize this. Phillip Fulmer probably recognizes this, too.
He just doesn't have the luxury of saying so.