Open-date magic

Asked during his Sunday teleconference to pinpoint the last time a Tennessee open date proved as productive as last week's, head coach Phillip Fulmer said he couldn't remember.

Well, I can. It was 1988, a season that began in very similar fashion to 2007.


- The opponents were piling up points at a mind-boggling pace.

- The defense couldn't seem to stop the run or the pass.

- The offense was struggling to try and carry the team.

- The fan base was ripping the head coach and the defensive coordinator.

- The staff, during an open-date week, somehow managed to right the ship.

The similarities go even deeper, though. After dropping the first five games of '88, including a 52-24 humiliation at the hands of Washington State, head coach Johnny Majors used his open date to bolster a defense that was porous.

After dropping two of the first four games of '07, including a 59-20 humiliation at the hands of Florida, Phillip Fulmer used his open date to bolster a defense that was porous.

As veteran Vol fans no doubt recall, the 1988 team turned things around following its open-date week, winning five of the last six games, then riding that momentum to an 11-1 season and SEC title in '89.

Whether the 2007 Vols are primed for a similarly dramatic turnaround remains to be seen, but Saturday's 35-14 drubbing of No. 12 Georgia at least suggests it's possible.

Fulmer said the key to this year's open date was that the Vols kept working, kept believing and kept improving.

"We did use this open date in a very productive fashion, mostly because we weren't going to give in as coaches," he said. "We were going to hold the line, and the players responded accordingly. I thought we did a really fine job as a team, taking to heart what needed to be done, working hard and improving."

Although the coaches evaluated their schemes during the open-date week, they decided the execution – not the system – was the problem.

"We always are self-evaluating, win or lose," Fulmer said. "We're grading it hard and looking at ourselves, (asking) how we can adjust and make ourselves better, whether it's with schemes or personnel."

Even though Tennessee lost decisively to Cal (45-31) in Game 1 and to Florida in Game 3, Fulmer and his staff always felt the Vols were on the verge of being a very good team.

"We weren't that far away," the head man said. "We played two really good teams and just gave up too many plays. If we don't give up those plays – whether it's a run, a pass or a turnover – we have a chance to win those games."

The Vols gave up plays, all right. They allowed 27 scrimmage gains of 20 yards or more in Games 1-4. They allowed two fumble returns for touchdowns, two punt returns for touchdowns and an interception return for touchdown.

Tennessee must have tightened some screws during the open date because it was not nearly so generous Saturday afternoon against the Dawgs.

"We didn't give Georgia anything," Fulmer said, "particularly in the first half."

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