Is Rick ready?

When Tennessee and Auburn met back on Oct. 2, Rick Clausen wasn't in the game physically but he was in the game mentally. He watched intently as freshman quarterbacks Erik Ainge and Brent Schaeffer struggled with a tenacious Tiger defense. He watched helplessly as Auburn intercepted five passes and rolled to a 34-10 victory.

He watched ... and he learned. The question is: What did he learn that might give the Vols a fighting chance in Saturday night's rematch at the Georgia Dome?

''I learned that if you turn the ball over six times you're not going to beat a good team,'' Clausen said. ''I think that's the biggest key we have to focus on this week ... taking care of the football. Whenever you face a good team such as Auburn, there are a few plays that are going to change the outcome of the game. Coach Fulmer has stressed to us that you never know when those plays are going to occur, so you have to play every play like it's your last.''

Although Clausen's first two starts as a Vol came against two of the SEC's worst teams -- Vanderbilt and Kentucky -- neither game turned out to be the laugher that was expected. The Commodores hung 33 points on Tennessee and the Wildcats followed with 31. Because Clausen had to produce on just about every possession to win those games, he's no stranger to pressure situations. That could help him in the SEC Championship Game vs. Auburn.

''I think so,'' he said. ''It was a pressure situation (against Vandy and UK). Whenever you're in a pressure situation you have to go out there and make plays. Fortunately, we made plays against those two teams.''

Still, he cautioned that the offense must be just as focused when the score is 3-0 as it is when the score is 27-24.

''The score can't dictate the way we play,'' Clausen said. ''Whether it's a close game or a blowout, we still need to play our offense the same way: We need to execute, run the offense as crisply as possible.''

Clausen & Company were very crisp last Saturday against Kentucky. He threw for 349 yards as the Vols amassed 606 total yards and 37 points. Not bad for a guy who opened the season as Tennessee's No. 3 quarterback.

''It's something I never thought would happen,'' he conceded. ''I kind of hoped it would happen, but the way we were playing and moving the football, I just wanted to win games. Unfortunately, both of those guys (Schaeffer and Ainge) had to get hurt. That means I had to step up and play, try to help the team win whatever way possible.''

Because he lacks the physical gifts of Schaeffer and Ainge, Clausen is more of a setup man than a playmaker.

''My job is to get the play in and out of the huddle, to manage the football game and get the ball in their (playmakers') hands,'' he said. ''That's pretty much the role of the quarterback in our offense. As long as I do that, we can be successful.''

Clausen has made obvious strides since being thrust into action in the second half of the Notre Dame game. What has been the biggest stride?

''Being able to recognize coverages faster, being able to see the field and understanding where to go with the ball faster,'' he said. ''That's the biggest thing -- just getting the ball to the athletes in the open field, so they can make plays.

''With the guys we have, it's really fun to go out there and watch them perform when you get the ball in their hands.''

Especially if you're watching from the field ... not the sidelines.

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