Fulmer's Toughest Test?

It's not something I could prove in a court of law, or anything I would discuss in mixed company (translated with Florida fans), still one can't help but to get the sense that enthusiasm for the 2007 football season is somewhat subdued by Big Orange standards.

The heady days of the mid and late nineties seem like a faded dream as Tennessee struggles to hold its own in an SEC seething with sharks. The Vols haven't won an SEC title since 1998 en route to the national title. They also prevailed in the Conference title game the year before in what should have been Peyton Manning's swan song instead of the drubbing administered by Nebraska in the Orange Bowl.

UT's combined record those two years was 24-2. The 1997 season featured perhaps the best offense in Tennessee history. The 1998 season showcased an outstanding and opportunistic defense anchored by the incomparable Al Wilson. UT's record the first seven full seasons under Phillip Fulmer was 73-14, including 5-3 in bowl games and 2-0 in SEC title contests. Tennessee's record the last seven seasons is 61-27, including 2-4 in bowl games and 0-2 in SEC title games. Over the last six seasons that mark falls to a modest 50-25 and 1-4.

Even more revealing is Fulmer's record the last five seasons compared to his two predecessors, who were both fired. Bill Battle had a 38-19-2 record including 2-1 in bowl games. Johnny Majors was 49-17-3, including 3-1 in bowl games with two SEC championships to his credit. (Majors' mark includes his last five full seasons plus the partial 1992 campaign in which the Vols went 5-3 under his direction and 4-0 under Fulmer.) Fulmer's record the last five seasons has been 42-21 and 1-4 in bowl games. It should also be noted that both Majors and Fulmer suffered losing 5-6 seasons in 1988 and 2005, respectively. Battle never had a losing season in his seven years as head coach.

If you go strictly by the records Fulmer would appear to be on the hot seat if not the ejection seat, but there are extenuating circumstances that have to be taken into account. Battle's run, although highly successful, was marked by a steady decline from 11-1 his first season to 6-5 his last. Moreover, the talent level took a nosedive in his tenure thus suggesting his early success was due to Doug Dickey's recruiting.

Majors declined a contract extension before the 1992 season and when the team lost three in a row after his return from heart surgery, the situation became more complicated. Fulmer, who was offensive coordinator, had become a head coaching commodity during his interim status which included victories over both Georgia and Florida. He was reportedly at the top of Arkansas' list of head coaching candidates as well as a candidate for a couple of other jobs. When Majors offered to accept the extension package he had originally turned down, UT's hand was forced and the change was made.

Fulmer has maintained his hold on the job despite recent setbacks for three reasons: (1) He led Tennessee to its first NCAA title in 47 years something neither Battle or Majors came close to doing (2) He continues to consistently put together quality recruiting classes (3) He has established unprecedented superiority over Alabama.

That's also something that neither Battle or Majors could do. Granted Alabama hasn't really been Alabama since Gene Stallings departed the scene in 1996. Still Fulmer is 11-3 against Bama including the 1993 tie which was later forfeited. Battle was 1-6 against Alabama, including six straight defeats to end his UT tenure, while Majors was 4-12 against Bama including seven straight losses from 1986 to 1992.

Although the Florida and Georgia games have become more critical to Tennessee since the conference split, Alabama will always be the Vols' measuring stick. It's a match between the two most tradition rich SEC teams and it's the game that resonates most deeply with UT fans. Some may have forgotten how difficult life can be with Alabama as top dog, while other fans are too young to remember. However, if the Tide turns the pain will be torrential for Tennessee faithful.

Despite Fulmer's success against Alabama it hasn't been easy in recent years. The Vols beat an inferior Bama team, 16-13, last year in Knoxville and lost at Tuscaloosa, 6-3, in 2005. The Vols prevailed 17-13 in 2004 and captured a 51-43 five-overtime victory in 2003. The Tide dominated UT, 34-14, at Knoxville in 2002.

The arrival of Nick Saban in Alabama can't help Tennessee's chances in this storied rivalry and it does nothing for Fulmer's job security. The Vols probably have an edge in talent but Alabama is far better than most UT fans realize.

Furthermore, the days of beating opponents with personnel alone are a thing of the past. (Although USC may be the exception.) Talent is much more evenly distributed, especially in the SEC, and the winning edge is more often found in preparation, tactics and in-game adjustments — all areas for which Saban is a recognized master.

Trying to keep up with Florida coming off a national title, facing a Georgia team the Vols haven't beaten in Knoxville since 1999 and tangling with two able antagonists like Steve Spurrier and Saban makes this the most challenging season Fulmer has ever faced at Tennessee.

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