Bad news for Penn State

The outcome of the Outback Bowl may hinge on which Tennessee team shows up in Tampa on Jan. 1: The one that toyed with California in the season opener or the one that struggled with Kentucky in the season finale.

Based on early indications, the answer is the former, and that could be very bad news for Penn State, UT's Outback foe.

Tennessee gave by far its best performance of 2006 in Game 1, racing to a 35-0 lead against the Golden Bears and coasting to a 35-18 romp. Conversely, the Vols may have bottomed out in Game 12 against the defensively challenged Big Blue, sleepwalking their way to a 17-12 triumph.

Following a spirited workout on Monday, Vol head man Phillip Fulmer believes his team is back near the energy and emotional levels it showed in Week 1.

"Yesterday was the kind of practice that we started the season with," Fulmer said on Tuesday, adding that it was a "high-tempo, responsive, physical, tough football practice. That's exactly what I want to get back to – from an attitude standpoint and from a mindset standpoint.

"I want to take our motto from the beginning of the year – "Fired up, focused and prepared" – and take it into our preparation here in Knoxville, our time in Tampa and into the ball game."

Even if the Vols match the emotional and energy peaks they hit against California, that won't ensure victory. Football games usually come down to execution, and execution usually comes down to exploiting good match-ups and overcoming bad match-ups.

Calling Penn State "one of the better teams we've played in awhile," Fulmer noted that: "A lot of it ends up being about match-ups. There's areas we match up well and there's other areas where we have some significant challenges in this ball game."

One of those "significant challenges" will be posed by a Penn State front seven that surrenders a mere 87.8 rushing yards per game.

"Our offensive front versus their defensive front and linebackers will be a challenge," Fulmer conceded.

Tennessee's ground game averaged a meager 110.1 yards per game this season. As a result, the Vols routinely relied on their passing attack to carry the offense.

"We haven't been the kind of running football team during the course of the year that I would've liked to have been," Fulmer said. "That is a concern that we still are working to address."

Another concern is Penn State tailback Tony Hunt, a bruising 6-2, 230-pounder who ran for 1,228 yards this fall. That's just 71 yards less than the combined total of UT's trio of LaMarcus Coker (660), Montario Hardesty (382) and Arian Foster (257).

"Our defensive team is certainly challenged as we look at stopping the big tailback, Hunt," Fulmer said. "At times, against some teams, we've been very good at it. But, consistently, we haven't stopped the run nearly like we have in the past."

Indeed. Vol opponents rushed for an average of 143.7 yards per game in '06, nearly doubling last year's average of 82.5.

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