``Ordinarily, practice is where you can tell. They can say anything they want to say, but once you see them on the practice field, you can pretty much tell if they're into it or not.''
But that doesn't mean they will play well, Fulmer has learned.
He's had teams that he thought were ready for a bowl lay an egg.
He's had teams he anguished about play lights out in a bowl.
Based on pre-Christmas practice, Fulmer feels confident his team will play well against Penn State in the Jan. 1 Outback Bowl – as confident as a coach can be given the uncertainty of bowl games.
``We had great practices (in Knoxville),'' Fulmer said. ``The kids were really into it. We've had a good tempo and a good attitude. We've got to take that to Tampa and play our best in the ballgame against Penn State. Our kids are excited about Penn State. They're excited about the challenge.
``I think we're ready. But to sit here and say you can tell 100 percent, I don't think you can do that anymore.''
No, you can't.
Fulmer thought his team was ready to play against Nebraska in the 1998 Orange Bowl. The Vols were coming off an SEC Championship win over Auburn. But they got hammered by a relentless rushing attack in the second half, losing 42-17.
Fulmer thought his team was ready for Clemson in the 2004 Peach Bowl. Clemson jumped to a 10-0 lead, had the edge 24-14 at halftime and held on for a 27-14 win despite a 384-yard passing day from Casey Clausen.
In UT's most recent bowl game, Fulmer was anything but confident. ``I didn't know for sure,'' Fulmer said of the 2005 Cotton Bowl. ``And we played lights out.''
The Vols routed Texas A&M 38-7.
``You feel it in your gut, `Hey, we're ready, we're there' and you hope you go and play like it,'' Fulmer said.
Fulmer had concerns before the 2002 Florida Citrus Bowl. Tennessee had just lost a heart-breaker to LSU in the SEC Championship game, costing the Vols a chance to play Miami for the national title in the Rose Bowl. It was the most devastating loss of Fulmer's career, costing him a third SEC crown in five years.
Yet, the Vols responded with a resounding 45-17 win over Michigan.
``Probably the most disappointing loss you could ever have (in the SEC title game) and those kids were ready to play (Michigan),'' Fulmer said. ``I think it helps when you play a name like Michigan. Everybody, since they were kids, has heard of Michigan and Penn State and Southern Cal.''
Fulmer felt good about his team's chances against Florida State in the national championship game – the 1999 Fiesta Bowl.
``I really did,'' Fulmer said. ``I really, really felt good about where we were in our preparations. I knew we'd have to play really well on defense and make our plays offensively.
``It's funny, offensively, three or four days before the game, we were still trying to work out blocking schemes on how in the heck to handle those guys. We ended up with some very simple things and took advantage enough of the run and got it on the perimeter enough and hit some big plays. That's the way you had to beat them.''
David Cutcliffe, Tennessee's offensive coordinator, has been involved in more than 20 bowls as an assistant and head coach. At Ole Miss, he was 4-1 in bowls with wins over Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Oklahoma State.
But like Fulmer, Cutcliffe said you just can't gauge whether your team is ready for a bowl game. `
`Absolutely not, and I've been fortunate enough to coach in a ton of them,'' Cutcliffe said.
Cutcliffe said the Vols' Knoxville practices were excellent. He said the third-down work was the best it's been all season.
``We're ready to play the game now,'' Cutcliffe said before Christmas.
But the Vols took off five days before traveling to Tampa.
``When we get to Tampa, are we going to walk a few extra miles at Busch Gardens?'' Cutcliffe said. ``Are we going to get in bed early? You just don't know.
``And I'm going to tell you, bowl games are momentum games. If you can avoid making mistakes and prevent giving opportunities to opponents, that's your best chance to win a bowl game. You go out there and momentum goes against you, bowl games are hard.''
Fulmer wants to keep the bowl routine as similar to a regular-season routine as possible, knowing his team has bowl functions to attend.
``We'll try to accommodate as best we can, but we're going to get our work in and we're going to do it at the same time of day every day we can,'' Fulmer said.
In his second season as UT head coach, Fulmer said he learned from one Joe Paterno that you've got to take care of your team first. It was during the 1994 Florida Citrus Bowl.
``I'm showing up at events with my football team and he's not there,'' Fulmer said. ``I said, `Wait a dadgum minute, we're not so obligated.' We were trying to accommodate. So you live and learn.
``We're going to have our time to be entertained, but the main reason we're there is to win a football game. There's a time for practice. There's a time for meetings. There's a time for rest. There's a time to be entertained. And there's a definite curfew time.''
And when kickoff time comes, we'll see if Tennessee is ready.
Fulmer hopes so. But he doesn't know so.