Vols Have Winning Edge

Take a look at Tennessee's 2004 football campaign and there is one statistic that simply jumps off the page: The Vols managed to go 7-1 in the SEC regular season despite only outscoring conference foes by a total of 16 points over eight games for an average of two points per contest.

That figure is slightly skewed by the 34-10 loss at home to Auburn, but there were still a lot of extremely close contests including UT victories over Florida by two points, Georgia by five points, Mississippi by four points, Alabama by four points, Vanderbilt by five points and Kentucky by six points. All of those contests swung on a final possession. Talk about living on the razor's edge.

It takes a degree of luck to win six conference games on the last possession, particularly when half of those wins are on the road, but it also takes a certain knack. Do it often enough and you eventually start to believe you can win any game that goes to the wire.

The importance of this factor is fully realized when you take into account Tennessee has 17 starters returning in 2005. That's three more than the Vols had returning in 2001 when they went 11-2 and narrowly missed a Rose Bowl bid which was the BCS national title tilt. In 1999, UT had 13 starters returning from the national championship team. In 2000, that number dropped to nine. Tennessee had only 10 starters back in 2002 and 11 in 2003. Last season the Vols had only eight returning starters on the roster. This year they'll have more than twice that many.

Most significant among the battle-tested returnees are tackles Jesse Mahelona and Justin Harrell. This is the first season UT has returned both starting tackles since John Henderson and Albert Haynesworth anchored the 2001 stop troops. Shutting down the middle is the first objective to controlling an offense and it's critical to staying close in any contest.

With conference games at Florida, LSU and Alabama, the Vols figure to be in some close games and they'll have to win their share to win the SEC. In 2001, UT had four regular season conference games that went to a final possession and the Vols won three of those, including two on the road. The lone defeat was the 26-24 setback at home vs. Georgia.

The road to the SEC Championship is indeed straight and narrow.

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