A 21st consecutive victory over Kentucky will make the offseason less bitter, but still the most important of the Fulmer Era. Fulmer has got to get his program turned around - now. He won't have two or three years to rebuild. If he doesn't win eight games next season, he might be in the unemployment line with a $4.3 million buyout check.
``We've won a lot of games in the past,'' Fulmer said. ``This is one of those years that gets everybody's attention. This whole thing is not what we're about.''
Fulmer's rebuilding starts today. He is expected to make at least one offensive staff change. He is expected to name David Cutcliffe offensive coordinator Monday, provided a head-coaching opportunity doesn't surface soon. He is expected to re-establish discipline where little exists.
This should be the most intense and demanding offseason workout program the Vols have ever experienced. It has to be to right a sinking ship.
Sophomore Erik Ainge showed flashes of what UT was hoping it would get at the start of the season. He hit his first four passes for 74 yards in an opening touchdown drive, hitting Robert Meachem for a 50-yard touchdown.
Later, Ainge found Chris Hannon over the middle for a 32-yard touchdown.
For a team that had averaged 7.2 yards on 19 previous touchdowns this season, averaging 41 yards on two offensive touchdowns qualifies as stop-the-presses news.
After a solid start - Ainge was 15 of 19 in the first half with an end-zone drop by C.J. Fayton - he made several critical mistakes. He fumbled a quarterback sneak early in the fourth quarter with the Vols at the Kentucky 35 and ahead 27-6.
On UT's next possession, he was called for intentionally grounding in the end zone. Given Ainge's end-zone blunders this season, Randy Sanders should have been placed in timeout. Ainge should never, ever throw from his own end zone again. Ever.
While the infraction was a poor call - Ainge was out of the pocket and threw the ball past the line of scrimmage - Ainge's decision making has proven he's not to be trusted when backed up near his goal line.
Cutcliffe, who has molded such quarterbacks as Peyton and Eli Manning, said Ainge has much work to do to become an effective college quarterback.
``First, he needs work on his mechanics, from the neck up, his decision making and managing himself in the pocket,'' Cutcliffe said. ``He needs to make much better decisions than I've seen him make. He also needs to have a tighter release. A tighter release would make him a more accurate passer.''
Ainge finished 17 of 25 for 221 yards and no interceptions. It was the first time all season that Ainge, who entered the game a 41 percent passer, had hit at least 50 percent of his passes.
Arian Foster was a bright spot again, rushing for over 100 yards in his fifth start. He finished with 114 yards on 26 carries. His numbers would have been much better if not for wide receiver Brett Smith.
Foster had a 54-yard touchdown run nullified by Smith's illegal procedure and a 78-yard touchdown reception wiped out by a Smith's downfield holding penalty. UT scored three points on those possessions, meaning Smith's miscues cost UT 11 points.
Most of Tennessee's other highlights were turned in by the defense. The Vols had three interceptions, six sacks, held Kentucky to a field goal on two possessions that started at the UT 9 and 35 yard line, held Rafael Little to 43 rushing yards (57 below his average) and limited the Wildcats to 3.1 yards per play (223 yards on 73 snaps).
``The defense played an excellent game,'' Fulmer said. ``When we got the lead, we showed how dangerous the front four can be. We turned them loose and they really got after the quarterback. Our defense has been really, really good all year.''
Defensive tackle Justin Harrell's second interception of the season gave the Vols a 24-6 cushion late in the third quarter.
``That was a great lift for the team,'' Fulmer said. ``I'm proud of Justin. He's become an outstanding football player. He'll tell you real quick he's an athlete. He was an old tight end in high school. He says he could help us a tight end. I'm all for it, but coach (John) Chavis (defensive coordinator) and I kind of argue about that.''
Besides Ainge's two blunders, UT had a few other bad moments. The Vols were penalized 10 times for 92 yards, Foster made a bad cut on a fourth-and-3 late in the game that could have run out the clock, Jonathan Hefney fumbled a punt return at his 9-yard line, Fayton dropped a TD pass and Sanders got impatience with the run game again, choosing to throw when the Wildcats were reeling against the run.
Still, it's better to end the season with a win that to close with losses to Vanderbilt and Kentucky in the same season for the first time since 1964.
It gives you some hope the Vols can turn things around next season.
``We'll look at the whole 9 yards,'' said Fulmer.
Fulmer vows he will get the program turned around.
Chavis guarantees it.