By: Randy Moore
The Georgia Dome is to Phillip Fulmer what Kryptonite is to Superman. It drains his power, makes him go weak in the knees and transforms him into just another guy with a ballcap and a coaching whistle.
Vol fans probably don't need a reminder of Fulmer's recent futility at The Dome but I'll give them one anyway:
• Dec. 6, 1997: Though led by Peyton Manning, a heavily favored Tennessee team gave one its sloppiest performances ever in the SEC Championship Game against Auburn, losing four fumbles and two interceptions. With UT trailing 20-10 at halftime, linebacker Al Wilson basically threatened his teammates with bodily harm if they didn't shape up. They did, at least enough to squeak by 30-29.
• Dec. 5, 1998: Unbeaten and top-ranked Tennessee was supposed to roll past No. 23 Mississippi State in the SEC Championship Game but the Vols fiddled around and trailed 14-10 with 8 minutes left. They needed two long touchdown passes in the final minutes to prevail 24-14.
• Dec. 8, 2001: One week after outclassing Steve Spurrier's Florida Gators in the Swamp, second-ranked Tennessee choked in the SEC Championship Game against LSU. Leading 17-7 in the first half, the Vols allowed the Tigers to rally behind second-team QB Matt Mauck and second-team RB Dominick Davis. Donte Stallworth played his worst game as a Vol and Travis Stephens lost a crucial fumble. LSU rallied to win 31-20, costing Tennessee a Rose Bowl bid and a chance to play for the national title.
• Dec. 31, 2002: Tennessee's players committed the unpardonable sin -- they quit -- in a humiliating Peach Bowl debacle against Maryland. The final score, 30-3, represented UT's most lopsided bowl loss ever. One of the darkest days in Vol history.
• Jan. 2, 2004: In a virtual replay of the previous season's Peach Bowl mishap, a 10-2 Tennessee team was dominated by an inferior but more motivated opponent. The Vol ground game accounted for a pathetic 38 yards on 26 carries and the defense got pushed all over the field. Final score: Clemson 27, UT 14.
Let's be honest, though: Even if Saturday's SEC Championship Game with Auburn were being played in Fulmer's living room -- instead of the Georgia Dome -- Tennessee would be a longshot to win. Here's why:
• Auburn is 11-0 and deserving of a shot at the national title. The Tigers' only chance to get that shot, however, is to annihilate Tennessee and hope that earns enough votes in the final BCS poll to overtake second-ranked Oklahoma. In short, UT will get Auburn's best shot.
• Auburn manhandled Tennessee 34-10 in the earlier meeting ... at Knoxville... with Brent Schaeffer, Erik Ainge and Michael Munoz healthy ... with Brandon Johnson playing strong safety. If Tennessee couldn't give the Tigers a game on its home field with the four players mentioned above playing key roles, how can it compete on a neutral site with none of the four contributing?
• Auburn is charging to the finish line. The Tigers won their last eight games by an average score of 35-10. Conversely, the Vols are limping to the finish line. Their last three games were a 17-13 home loss to Notre Dame, a 38-33 win over Vanderbilt and a 37-31 win over Kentucky.
• Coming off an open date, Auburn has had a week to rest and two weeks to prepare for Saturday night's game. Tennessee had no rest and one week to prepare.
• Auburn has the No. 1 scoring defense in college football, allowing 9.6 points per game. Tennessee scored 10 last time and will be hard-pressed to surpass that with No. 3 quarterback Rick Clausen at the controls. To win, Tennessee's defense probably will have to hold Auburn below 10 points. Do you really think a Vol stop unit that surrendered 33 points to Vandy and 31 to Kentucky can hold Auburn below 10?
Optimists will point out that Tennessee has overachieved in the recent past when facing a heavily favored foe. The Vols were double-digit underdogs when they beat Florida at Gainesville in 2001, when they beat Miami at Miami in 2003 and when they beat Georgia at Athens in 2004. The problem is, this year's Auburn Tigers are a much better team than Florida was in 2001, than Miami was in 2003 and than Georgia was this fall.
I think Tennessee's coaches and players deserve tremendous credit for overcoming glaring deficiencies at quarterback and in the secondary to go 9-2 and win the SEC East title. But if Fulmer can win this game, the NCAA honchos should hand him the National Coach of the Year award as he leaves the field Saturday night.