Can Vols reign in the rain?

The last time the Florida Gators visited Neyland Stadium, homestanding Tennessee proved to be a generous host, giving the game away just before halftime. With a steady rain falling, the Vols trailed just 7-0 with five minutes left to intermission. Then the dam burst:

Casey Clausen fumbled a snap to set up a 28-yard Florida touchdown pass ... 14-0. • Corey Larkins fumbled the ensuing kickoff return but Florida threw an interception.
• Clausen fumbled two more snaps, keeping UT backed up near its own goalline. Florida turned the superior field position into another TD ... 21-0.
Troy Fleming fumbled the kickoff return, setting up a Gator field goal on the final play of the half ... 24-0.

Five fumbles in 4:55 of clock time may be an NCAA record. Even if it wasn't enough to set a record, it was enough to doom the Vols to a 30-13 setback. So, with Hurricane Ivan projected to dump rain on Knoxville all weekend, you have to wonder if Tennessee will handle the wet conditions any better in this year's rematch with Florida.

Reminded that the Vols ''sort of self-destructed'' in the 2002 Gator game, Vol head coach Phil Fulmer replied: ''We didn't SORT OF self-destruct. We self-destructed, offensively.... Just getting the exchange was the problem.

''We've tried to address that -- practicing in the rain and making it a big issue.''

Although UT tied the school record with eight fumbles in the 2002 Florida game, Fulmer considers that butter-fingered performance something of a fluke.

''We played in as much rain, if not more, at Arkansas (the previous season) and didn't have any kind of problem,'' the head man said. ''With two young quarterbacks (Brent Schaeffer, Erik Ainge) and two centers (Jason Respert, Chuck Prugh) who haven't played much, don't think we haven't addressed that. We've certainly looked at that.''

Still, you wonder: If a four-year starting senior like Clausen couldn't deal with the rain in 2002, why should first-year freshmen Schaeffer and Ainge will fare any better in 2004? For one thing, Clausen grew up in sunny Southern California, whereas Schaeffer and Ainge are more familiar with inclement weather.

''We had a little wet-ball work yesterday (Monday) -- brought the hoses out on the centers and quarterbacks after practice,'' offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said. ''But one of them (Schaeffer) is from Fort Lauderdale and one of them (Ainge) is from Portland. Come on, if they haven't played in the rain by now ... They're much more comfortable with the rain because they grew up with it.''

Although sloppy conditions are sure to affect Saturday's gameplan, Sanders said they won't affect it to a great extent.

''Obviously, you have to take it into account to a certain degree but you can't allow it to make you one-dimensional,'' he said. ''But last time I checked we had a 60-million dollar budget (for UT athletics), so I'm sure (athletics director) Mike Hamilton will buy us some new footballs if we get 'em wet.''


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