Uh-oh, Vols are favored

The trend is so obvious that it drives Tennessee football fans nuts. When the Vols are heavy underdogs, they play well and often win. When they're heavy favorites, they play poorly and sometimes lose.

The 1998 team was pegged for mediocrity, yet won the national title. The '99 team, with virtually everyone back from the year before, was projected for greatness and went 9-3.

This annoying trend continues to this day. The 2001 Vols were 18-point underdogs at Florida but won. The 2003 Vols were 13-point underdogs at Miami, yet they won again. A week earlier, however, they were 24-point favorites against Duke and entered the fourth quarter clinging to a scant 9-6 lead.

This alarming knack for playing poorly as a prohibitive favorite will be tested the next weekends. The Vols are 23-point favorites against visiting Mississippi State this Saturday and will be similarly favored the following weekend against Vanderbilt.

Asked why his team plays better as an underdog than as a favorite, head coach Phillip Fulmer paused thoughtfully before replying: ''The coaches spend the same amount of hours on preparation; everything's the same. But there's an emotional edge you have (sometimes) that gives you a chance to play at your best.''

Tennessee won't have the emotional edge that comes with being a heavy underdog this weekend vs. MSU. Still, Fulmer thinks the Vols have plenty of incentive.

''Certainly, with what is out there (a shot at the SEC East title and a BCS bowl bid), we should be playing at our emotional best and physical best, as well,'' he said. ''I'm hoping our team will do that, and I feel like they will.''

Although Tennessee shocked Miami last weekend, Fulmer thinks the Vols can play considerably better than they did vs. the Hurricanes. He's hoping the Big Orange can put together that elusive ''complete game'' this weekend.

''You learn things as you go along,'' he said. ''Obviously, you want your team to play at the best level of football it can. This team has been a little bit slow offensively. We had a good first half against Miami, then kind of took the second half off. We need to put a whole game together.''

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