Fulmer won't play 'what if?'

Tennessee's Phillip Fulmer is willing to look ahead ... but only to the Vols' upcoming game with Mississippi State. The head man absolutely will not be drawn into speculation about the outcome of a possible three-way tie for the SEC East title involving his team, Florida and Georgia.

SEC athletics directors recently decided that a three-way divisional tie will NOT be settled by their vote but rather by the Bowl Championship Series rankings. However -- and here's where things get interesting -- they made one exception to this rule. If Team A is rated no more than five spots lower than Team B and owns a head-to-head win over Team B, then Team A may be selected to represent its division in the SEC Championship Game.

This is a major concern for Tennessee, since the Vols lost head-to-head to Georgia (41-14). Should UT, Georgia and Florida win out to finish 6-2 in SEC play, the Big Orange might NOT be chosen to represent the East in the SEC Champioinship Game, even if it is rated several spots ahead of Georgia in the BCS ratings.

Asked during his Sunday teleconference how he feels about the change in tiebreaking procedures, Fulmer replied: ''I think it's probably all right. Mike Hamilton (UT athletics director) told me about it before the (Miami) game and I thought it made sense.''

But what about the clause allowing a team to leapfrog a higher-rated team it has beaten head to head?

Fulmer replied that he thinks this will be a non-issue, adding: ''If a team's five spots ahead, they're probably going to be the one to go.''

But what if a team is only three or four spots ahead of a team that beat it head-to-head, as may well happen with UT and Georgia? Fulmer ducked the question.

''We can hypothetically go through all kinds of scenarios,'' the Vol boss said, ''but the only thing we can do anything about is getting ready to play Mississippi State this Saturday. That's the ONLY thing I'm thinking about right now.''

Since Tennessee's BCS ranking suddenly looms large in its SEC East title hopes, Fulmer was asked how he feels about the prospect of having to score ''style points'' with lopsided victories in UT's remaining games (MSU, Vanderbilt and Kentucky).

''I really just want to win the games we have left,'' he hedged. ''We have not been about style points. We've had to fight like heck for everything we get. I want the team focused on doing the things they need to do to beat Mississippi State.''

Asked if jockeying for position in the BCS rankings will distract his players, Fulmer replied: ''We're going to find out about that. The team has listened really well all year. And, even when people were saying bad things about them, they've gone to the practice field and worked hard to get better.''

After playing sloppily throughout its first eight games, Tennessee did enough things well over the weekend to post a 10-6 upset of No. 6 Miami. The Vols were outgained by a significant margin but, surprisingly enough, won by playing a fundamentally sound football game.

''That's not something we typically would do,'' Fulmer noted. ''But turnovers, penalties and ball possession (all of which were in UT's favor) are the great equalizer. Like I said after the game, it's not how you drive but how you arrive.''

Although the win wasn't pretty, it was impressive enough to boost Tennessee from 18th to ninth in the Associated Press national rankings. Fulmer conceded that the move represented ''a big jump but it's not something I'm concerned about right now.''

Miami was UT's biggest victory since an upset of No. 2 Florida to end the 2001 regular season, yet Fulmer readily admits that Tennessee has a long way to go to reach its potential.

''We can't stick our heads in the sand,'' he said. ''We've got to look at what we need to do to get better. Inconsistencies on offense have limited our effectiveness as a team. The emergence of (Chris) Hannon and (Derrick) Tinsley has helped but we just have not been consistent, as far as running the ball well and passing the ball well in the same game. We're not complete yet.''

Asked if he is considering some personnel changes, Fulmer replied, ''We're talking about that,'' but added that who starts is relatively unimportant, since the guys who are productive are the ones who spend the most time in the lineup.

Several Vols were very productive vs. Miami. Foremost among them was strong safety Gibril Wilson, who posted eight solo tackles, one assist and an interception.

''Gibril had one of the finest games as a safety we've had around here in quite awhile,'' Fulmer said, later adding: ''He played every snap on defense, which, with Rashad Baker out, was almost absolutely necessary. He splattered a couple of running backs ... made a couple of really big hits.''

Tinsley made some big plays, as well. He scored the game's only touchdown on a fourth-and-goal end-around. He picked up 12 yards and a crucial first down on the same play as Tennessee tried desperately to move off its own goalline and eat up some clock in the final minutes. He also made two hits on special teams coverage and recovered the fumbled punt that sealed Miami's doom with less than two minutes remaining.

Cornerback Jason Allen recorded 9 solo tackles, 2 assists, a caused fumble, and a pass break-up in his finest performance as a Vol.

Yet another Vol who stepped up big was receiver/safety Mark Jones. He belted Brock Berlin on a safety blitz, causing the poor throw that Wilson intercepted at Tennessee's 7-yard line, just when it appeared that Miami was driving to the go-ahead touchdown with less than five minutes remaining.

''Mark is a football player,'' Fulmer said. ''If you asked him to play quarterback, there are some things he'd do as a quarterback to help you. He hit the quarterback's arm to cause the interception, and that won the ballgame. Plus, he's stabilized our receiver corps, along with Tony Brown.

''I'm really going to miss him when he's gone. Hopefully, he'll play four or five more games for us first.''

For Jones to play five more games, UT would have to win the East Division's bid to the SEC Championship Game and earn a bowl bid. So, while Fulmer won't comment on Tennessee's chances of winning a tiebreaker to make the league title game, he's clearly thinking about it.


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