Slip-Slidin' Away

Between 1995 and 2001 Tennessee's football program finished in the NCAA top 10 six times in a span of seven years. In the five years since, the Vols' highest rating was 15th. Twice (2002 and 2005) they were unranked.

Like the Paul Simon song of the 1970s, the Big Orange has been "Slip-Slidin' Away" in recent years. The national media has noticed. Virtually no one is mentioning Phillip Fulmer's 2007 Vols as a major player on the national stage for the season ahead.

Noting this, two fans submitted questions regarding Tennessee's fall from grace to Stewart Mandel, who writes the College Football Mailbag column for sportsillustrated.com. Each fan questioned whether Fulmer will be able to get Tennessee back among the nation's elite.

Here is Mandel's reply:

So you want to give Big Phil the boot, do you? I guess that means they'll have to take down that street they named after him (Phillip Fulmer Way). And explain why they're firing one of the five winningest active coaches in the country (only Pete Carroll, Urban Meyer, Bob Stoops and Mark Richt have a higher percentage among guys with at least five years experience).

But both Gerald and Josh have valid points. While the Vols remain a regular top-20 program, the fact is they're not as nationally relevant as they were a decade ago. They haven't won an SEC championship since 1998, haven't played in a BCS bowl since '99 and haven't seriously contended for the national title since 2001. In the five seasons since, they've posted a combined record of 42-21 – not too shabby by any means but certainly a step down from their 54-8 run from 1995 to '99.

Without question, the trademark of Fulmer's 15-year tenure in Knoxville has been recruiting. The Vols do it as well as anyone, not only dominating their own state but luring big-time talent from as far away as California. Many of their biggest stars over the years – from Peyton Manning (Louisiana) to Jamal Lewis (Georgia) to Peerless Price (Ohio) to Donte Stallworth (California) – have come from outside of Tennessee. Based on the recruiting rankings, that juggernaut seems to be continuing today.

But even the best recruiters occasionally make mistakes, and Fulmer would be the first to tell you the program got sloppy a few years ago, recruiting some questionable characters who not only flamed out on the field but also created off-field distractions and poisoned the locker room. They contributed heavily to the 5-6 disaster in 2005. But I also think Fulmer and his staff have been exposed a bit as coaches ever since the SEC playing field got leveled a bit. The Vols may still be recruiting blue-chippers, but so too are Florida, LSU, Georgia and Auburn. I don't think any football observer would ever single out Fulmer as a world-class game coach. It's not like you watch a Vols game and go, "Oh, yeah, that was a signature Fulmer move." So is it any wonder that when the talent is mostly even, Fulmer has struggled against more renowned tacticians like Steve Spurrier (4-8), Richt (2-4), Tommy Tuberville (1-3 since Tuberville got to Auburn) and Meyer (0-2)?

This year's Vols certainly look promising on paper, but Tennessee is one of those teams that always looks good on paper because it's never hurting for talent. Is it fair for Tennessee fans to expect a return to the BCS sooner than later? Absolutely. But I'll tell you this much – with Meyer, Richt and Spurrier in his own division and Nick Saban now on the Vols' schedule every year at Alabama, it's not going to get any easier for Fulmer.


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