Clausen's confident

He's bracketed first-team with Erik Ainge as Tennessee's No. 1 quarterback this summer, yet Rick Clausen is supremely confident -- not necessarily that he'll win the job but that the BEST MAN will.

"Me and Erik have the utmost confidence that Coach (Phillip) Fulmer will make the best decision for our football team," Clausen said during the recent SEC Media Days in Birmingham. "I'm just going out to get better every day in practice. Ultimately, the decision lies with Coach Fulmer and what he feels is best for our football program."

Because both Clausen and Ainge have proven they can win at the SEC level, it's likely both will see plenty of action this fall -- no matter who starts.

"In the heat of battle, you never know what Coach Fulmer will do," Clausen said, deftly avoiding the question.

One thing Fulmer WON'T do is pick a quarterback based on how much money his parents donate to the university. A few cynical fans have suggested Clausen will win the top job because his parents are major contributors. Rick is so insulted by this suggestion that he addressed it in Birmingham.

"Ultimately, it doesn't come down to whose parents he (Fulmer) likes or who he likes," Clausen said. "It ultimately comes down to who's moving the football, who's putting the offense in the end zone and who's producing a win. That's all me and Erik and the rest of the guys are thinking about -- winning football games."

Clausen won three of the four games he started last fall, losing only to Auburn in the SEC Championship Game. That's pretty strong, considering he played in just two of UT's first eight games and didn't throw his first pass of the season until the third quarter of Game 9 vs. Notre Dame.

Clausen made up for lost time, though. He completed 10 of 18 passes for 120 yards in the second half vs. the Irish, then connected on 19 of 30 for 189 yards and two touchdowns in Game 10 against Vanderbilt. He blossomed in Game 11 vs. Kentucky, clicking on 26 of 41 for 349 yards and two touchdowns, rallying Tennessee to a 37-31 come-from-behind victory.

"I think the biggest thing in that game was the fact I gained a lot of respect from the rest of the team," he said. "That was a tough situation to be in. We were down, and the fact we came back and won that game ultimately gave the guys the sense that I could get it done when it needed to be done. I think that's the thing that carried us the rest of the year."

Clausen completed just eight of 20 passes in the SEC Championship Game vs. Auburn but directed the attack near-flawlessly as the Vols put up 28 points, the most allowed by the stingy Tiger defense all season. He then turned in an MVP-winning performance in the Cotton Bowl, completing 18 of 27 throws for 222 yards and three touchdowns in a 38-7 blitz of Texas A&M.

He finished the season with 949 passing yards and eight touchdowns -- pretty good numbers for a guy who scarcely left the bench during the first 8½ games.

"I was waiting for my opportunity," he said. "And, when I got my opportunity, I succeeded."

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