UT head coach Phillip Fulmer's record in the postseason is now a mediocre 6-6, his teams having lost four of their last five bowl games since the 1998 national championship. The only postseason win since then was over Michigan in the 2002 Citrus Bowl. What effect the lack of SEC titles and bowl wins may have on recruiting will be a good topic for debate over the next few months.
The Volunteer offense looked against Clemson (9-4) as it did most of last season, lacking big play capability and struggling to score points. UT's only touchdowns came on the arm of senior quarterback Casey Clausen to receivers Chris Hannon and Mark Jones. Clausen was 31 of 55 for 384 yards and no interceptions, but he was sacked six times by an offensive line that appeared no better than the one beset by injuries last year.
Fulmer and offensive coordinator Randy Sanders gave up on the run early in the contest, and the Vols, whose mentor preaches "pounding the rock," rushed for only 38 yards on the night.
"They gave up on the run the whole second half," Clemson linebacker LeRoy Hill said. "That helped us, them making themselves one-dimensional."
Fulmer defended the decision by saying it was "dictated by what the Clemson defense did," though earlier in the week he had declared the Tigers to be most like his own team defensively.
Although he provided no apologies to fans this year as he did following last year's debacle against Maryland, Fulmer said "the supporting cast" around Clausen did not give him much help.
"We worked hard and prepared well. I thought we were ready to play," Fulmer said. "Clemson made some plays and we helped them with four or five major penalties in the second half. We helped them a lot and that's my responsibility."
It's a familiar refrain from a coach known for his discipline but whose players lately seem to lack it, especially in crucial situations and even more so in postseason.
Defensively, the Vols self-destructed under the pressure of Clemson's no-huddle offense and passing attack. The Tigers scored all of their points but a field goal in the first half, rushing for 153 yards and passing for 246 yards against a defense that surrendered less than 10 points on average over its last five games.
For seniors who hoped to "leave the program as they found it," the loss was particularly difficult to swallow. Clausen, who declared that he came to Tennessee to win championships, left with nothing to show but a share of one SEC East title, which came this season.
"We knew coming into this game, the offense was going to have to win it, and it came down to guys making plays, and today they made more than we did," Clausen said. "Obviously, it's a disappointing end. I told the guys before the game to have fun and do the best they could. I would have liked to end with a win, but I gave it all I had. We came up short."
Senior center Scott Wells said the Vols simply couldn't get hold of any momentum in the game after the Tigers jumped out to a 10-0 lead.
"We couldn't get anything going offensively," he said. "It seemed like they (Clemson) always brought more guys than we had blockers. We didn't perform as well as we did in practice."
On the defensive side, senior Constantin Ritzmann said the crucial penalties committed by the defense in the second half were not a case of the players losing their heads, though it was obvious that the defense was frustrated.
"I don't think we lost our poise," Ritzmann said. "We played hard as a team. If you look back, we really came together as a team. Clemson did a good job of throwing some things at us we haven't seen. They came out with some formations where we expected pass and they ran."
Sophomore quarterback Charlie Whitehurst didn't complete a touchdown pass against the UT defense but he was plenty effective, going 22 of 40 for 246 yards and his line allowed only a single sack.
"This was a great team win," Whitehurst said. "The offense won the game in the first half and the defense won the game in the second half. This was our second top 10 win in the last four games (Clemson defeated Florida State). It has been a great season."
Tennessee's James Banks, who was suspended for the first half because of a violation of team rules, summed up the feelings of players who will return for the Vols next season.
"It's a tough loss. We have to come back and work hard," Banks said. "I hope I have the opportunity to keep contributing. Having lost two straight here just burns. "I think next year, we'll be a lot better in the ways we weren't tonight."