Fulmer Faces one of his Greatest Challenges

Phillip Fulmer is now faced with one of his greatest challenges as Tennessee's head coach.

The team's goals have gone poof. Unless you've got some magical sprinkle dust, the Vols have no chance to win the East Division and play for the SEC Championship. Don't even mention national championship.

Tennessee's 27-14 loss to Georgia was the second of the season to an East Division rival. Even if the Vols were to go 6-2 in the SEC, they lose any tie-breaker to Georgia or Florida. Of course, it's hard to imagine UT forcing a tie-breaker.

UT has six regular-season games remaining, including road trips to Alabama and Notre Dame. Unless the Vols rally, they've got 7-4 written all over them, and 7-4 for a team that had national championship hopes is a major, major disappointment.

There are two culprits: Special teams and offense. The Vols entered the Georgia game ranked 109 in the nation in kick returns, 103 in net punting 91 in punt returns. They were 93 in scoring, 90 in total offense, 86 in rushing and 101 in passing efficiency.

The special teams have blundered all season, highlighted Saturday when Georgia's Thomas Flowers sealed the deal with a 54-yard punt return for a touchdown to make it 20-7 with 8:50 left in the game.

And Tennessee's offense has gone AWOL. The run-game is south of horrible. The Vols are averaging 99 rushing yards after five games ? 99 yards! That's the worst average in 41 years, Doug Dickey's first as UT's coach. A program that prides itself on pounding the rock is getting pounded at the line of scrimmage. UT had 48 rushing yards against Georgia. Running backs had 66 on 21 carries.

Rick Clausen passed for 310 yards, but that's misleading. He had 51 on a meaningless last-minute scoring drive. He threw a key interception in the end zone in the second quarter with the score 7-0, Georgia. On the play before, he missed an open Bret Smith over the middle for a would-be tying touchdown.

Despite going 21 of 36 passing, Clausen was unable to make some throws because he doesn't have the arm strength of an Erik Ainge.

Because of Clausen's limitations, the Vols have little margin for error on offense. Illegal procedure or a sack is magnified. An incompletion or dropped pass is magnified.

Asked how he'd fixed the offense, Fulmer said: ``That's a good question.''

So, what's the answer? Maybe you go with Ainge at quarterback. Maybe you send Sanders to the press box. Maybe you become more committed to the run-game.

Former UT offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe had this suggestion: ``Go back to basics -- go back to what you know.''

But what does Tennessee know? It knows it can't run well. It knows it can't stretch a defense. It knows it can't consistently make many big plays. The Vols actually had four plays of over 20 yards in the first half against Georgia - almost matching the season total but couldn't score a point.

Field position hurt the Vols. They started five possessions inside their 10-yard line. The average field position in the first half: UT's 15. The average field position in the second half, not counting an interception return to the Georgia 1, the 20. Average field position for the game: 17.5 yard line.

Somehow, Fulmer has to pick this team up by the boot straps. He has to motivate them. He has to convince them there is something left to play for. He has to make them believe that a win over Alabama is still a win over Alabama.

He's got an open date to do it. But how does he do it? Fulmer has rallied teams in the past after slow starts, but never a team with such high expectations. And now, he's got to prod them without arguably their best defensive player, cornerback Jason Allen, who is out indefinitely and likely for the season, with a hip injury.

A member of UT's medical staff said Allen didn't complain about his knee, only his hip. The concern is the hip has been displaced. But Allen's knee also appeared to get twisted awkwardly. An MRI will be done Sunday with final results on Monday.

Clausen, who told fans last week if they didn't like UT's offense don't watch, was on Vol fans again. Asked what UT plays for now, Clausen said each other:

``Just because things go bad to start out with, doesn't mean you pack it in. I'm sure a lot of people out there will pack us in and say, `You know what, it's not worth it.' So, hey, if that's the way they feel, that's fine. .. We've got enough pride in ourselves and enough pride in our locker room to play for each other at this point.''

Asked if he felt UT fans would bail on the team, Clausen said: ``I don't know. I sure hope not. We're playing for everybody that's in the Tennessee family. If the fans bail on us now, then apparently they're not true Tennessee football fans. We can't win every single football game but we expect to and fans expect us to and those are expectations you deal with when you come to program like Tennessee.

``I sure hope we get a lot of support because we're sure going to need it.''

GAME NOTES: Georgia is only the third school to win three straight games in Neyland Stadium, joining Alabama (which has done it twice) and Ole Miss. Georgia coach Mark Richt is 3-0 in Neyland Stadium. UT is 0-6 against AP top 10 teams this decade. The last home win over a top 10 team was against Georgia in 1999. Richt is now 17-2 in opposing stadiums. UT has averaged less than 16 points in the last six meetings against Georgia, but averaged 33.6 points in the previous eight. Georgia (47-10) has the SEC's winningest program since the start of the 2001 season. Entering this weekend, the SEC had used instant replay in 33 games with 23 review stoppages and seven reversals.

Inside Tennessee Top Stories