UT still in BCS picture?

Conventional wisdom says that Tennessee's football team will spend New Year's in Florida, participating in either the Capital One Bowl (Orlando) or the Outback Bowl (Tampa). But Vol head man Phillip Fulmer still believes the Big Orange may wind up in a Bowl Championship Series bowl.

Fresh from a 20-7 defeat of Kentucky that concluded a 10-2 regular season, the Vols won't make the Sugar Bowl, which hosts this year's national championship game. But Fulmer thinks they might wind up in the Fiesta, the Orange or even the Rose. Citing unnamed BCS sources, he said his team remains very much in the running for one of these elite bowls.

''They've indicated that we're in the BCS mix and that some other things have to fall around us,'' Fulmer said on his Sunday teleconference. ''It's us, Ohio State and Texas out there for a couple of spots. Who knows what's going to happen?''

Is Tennessee deserving of a BCS bowl bid? Perhaps. The Vols weren't often pretty to watch but they won their last six games after struggling to a 4-2 start. Defensively, they made considerable progress from September to November.

''I think we came a long way,'' Fulmer said. ''All the way back to two-a-days, we were really young and immature at the defensive tackle position and we weren't responding. It helped a lot when we got (converted end) J.T. Mapu in there.''

Once Mapu joined the tackle corps, Tennessee improved almost on a weekly basis.

''They got knocked around some, then took off,'' Fulmer said.

And, as the tackles improved, the pressure eased on the rest of UT's defense.

''Our linebackers and secondary tried to compensate for plays that weren't really their responsibility, and we gave up some chunks of yards,'' Fulmer recalled. ''Once we stopped doing that, from midesason on, we became a really solid defensive team.''

The linebackers never lived up to their preseason hype but they played better as the season wore on.

''Robert Peace had played quite a bit but Kevin Burnett and Kevin Simons really hadn't played that much,'' Fulmer noted. ''They were good players and had the big names but hadn't played that much.''

The head man added that the emergence of sophomore cornerback Jason Allen and sophomore defensive end Parys Haralson were other factors that weighed heavily in Tennessee's defensive progress from Game 1 to Game 12.

Asked why the Vol offense was unable to make similar progress, Fulmer replied:

''We never played great at running back, nobody ever took over. I think the offensive line played pretty darned solid most of the year. But we never had anything dynamic at RB. There were some flashes but nothing as consistent as it needed to be; that was part of problem. And there were some inconsistencies at receiver from time to time.''

Fulmer conceded that Tennessee ''played some good defensive teams'' early in the season and that ''The last few games (Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, Kentucky) we played against defenses that weren't quite as good.''

Ultimately, though, he said the failure to be consistently productive could be traced to a shortage of dynamic playmakers, a shortcoming that ''hopefully, we'll be able to correct as we go along.''

The best way to do this, of course, is to recruit some impact athletes who are dynamic playmakers. Fulmer was in the process of doing this as he conducted his teleconference by cell phone, noting that he was on a recruiting trip. He didn't say where but he may have been up north, since he said the weather was ''really cold.''

Whether or not the Vols get a BCS bid, Fulmer said this has been ''a heck of a successful year, particularly considering some of the dynamics we had to deal with -- a youthful defense and nobody emerging as a dominant running back.''

But, lest fans get the idea he's content to be 10-2, the coach posed a couple of rhetorical questions:

''Would I like to have gotten out of Auburn with a win? Absolutely. Would I like to have played better against Georgia? Absolutely. Those two games meant the difference between us playing for the (SEC) championship. It was still a heck of a year but we're about championships.''

As always, Fulmer said he'll take a long look at some of Tennessee's younger players during bowl preparations and ''try and get good handle on what we're looking at for spring practice.''

The Vols should be close to full strength for the bowl game. The only significant injury in the Kentucky game was the afore-mentioned Mapu, who suffered a stinger -- his second in the past month. Still, he should be back by bowl time.

''He had a stinger that they (trainers) didn't feel good about him going back into the game,'' Fulmer said. ''He needs time and rest from contact.''

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