Both Ainge and Schaeffer performed admirably in 2004, helping Tennessee to a surprising 10-win season that included an SEC East title. Sanders somehow kept things simple enough that the freshmen could execute the offense but complex enough that opposing defenses couldn't anticipate every move before it unfolded.
Fulmer noted that Sanders did a great job of "not giving them too much to do, using the strengths around them and not putting them in positions where they were going to have to make a whole lot of big-time decisions."
Sanders' popularity has soared in the wake of last season's offensive success. Football fans are a fickle bunch, though, so one bad outing can send his approval rating plummeting. Fulmer touched on this theme during his Birmingham visit.
"Randy has taken a lot of grief," the head man conceded. "In 1998 he was a hero; he basically called the game in the National Championship game (against Florida State).
"In '99 he did fine because he had a lot of really good players but we graduated a lot of kids (at the end of) that year and lost five juniors to the NFL. So, in 2000 he wasn't such a hero anymore because we were playing with lesser people than we had been playing with."
The 2001 season saw Sanders' popularity return, as the Vols won the SEC East and blasted Michigan 45-17 in the Citrus Bowl. UT's offensive struggles in 2002 and 2003 brought grumbling from his critics but Sanders silenced them with his excellent work in '04.
As Fulmer dryly noted: "He's a good play-caller, again, all of a sudden."