Fulmer admitted that his pre-game quip befuddled his players at first.
"They didn't know whether to laugh at first or not," the coach said. "They finally broke up, and it just broke the ice for them."
With a minute left in the South Carolina game, however, it appeared that the Grim Reaper was indeed knocking at Fulmer's door. Wearing garnet and black instead of the traditional black robe, Steve Spurrier seemed poised to put another nail in Fulmer's coffin – figuratively speaking, of course.
Down 21-0 at halftime, Spurrier's Gamecocks had rallied to take a 24-21 lead on Ryan Succup's 49-yard field goal with 1:24 to play. But, just when Fulmer's future was looking truly grim (pun intended), freshman Daniel Lincoln came to the rescue.
Lincoln booted a game-tying 48-yard field goal with five seconds left in regulation, then nailed a 27-yarder in overtime, giving the Vols a dramatic 27-24 victory.
The triumph improved Tennessee's record to 5-3 overall and 3-2 in SEC play. Coupled with Georgia's 42-30 win over Florida, the Vols have regained control of their own destiny in the SEC East race. Though Georgia also has just two losses, UT owns the tie-breaker of a head-to-head victory. If the Vols win out, they will represent the Eastern Division in the SEC Championship Game Dec. 1 in Atlanta.
Asked about the impact of the Grim Reaper comment, Fulmer smiled.
"It relieved the tension; it really did," he said. "It was like the decision to practice on Sunday, instead of Monday, last week. I just felt like we had to change something."
One thing Tennessee didn't change was Lincoln's incredible run of success. Although he missed a 51-yard boot just before halftime, the two late-game connections leave him with 15 field goals in 17 tries thus far in his rookie season.
Lincoln missed one kick Saturday that didn't count against him, however. Seconds before nailing the game-tying 48-yarder, he hooked a 43-yarder wide left. Tennessee was guilty of a false start on the play, however, so the Vols were assessed a five-yard penalty and Lincoln got to try again. He says he heard the whistle and knew the first kick wouldn't count but went through with it anyway. The one that did count was on the mark, sending the game into overtime.
Following Lincoln's overtime field goal, Carolina's Ryan Succup missed a potential game-tying 40-yarder, ending the game and making a hero of his Vol counterpart.
"He's been wonderful to coach," Fulmer said, subsequently adding that Lincoln has "a very promising future."
Tennessee's future looked pretty promising when the Vols raced to a three-touchdown bulge. A 52-yard fumble return by Eric Berry set up a one-yard Arian Foster touchdown run that gave Tennessee a 7-0 lead late in the first quarter.
On the first play of the second quarter Berry intercepted a Chris Smelley pass and returned it 13 yards to set up a 44-yard drive that Montario Hardesty capped with a three-yard TD burst around right end.
Fulmer said it felt "strange .. weird" to be up by three touchdowns at the break. Apparently, his players felt the same way because they came out flat in the second half, enabling the visitors to get back in the game.
South Carolina, which hadn't scored a touchdown in eight quarters – dating to the first half of its Oct. 13 game with North Carolina - struck for three second-half TDs against the Vols.
The first came when No. 2 quarterback Blake Mitchell sneaked over from a yard out to cap a nine-play, 39-yard drive. Mitchell completed passes of 21 and 19 yards on the next possession, then Cory Boyd rambled the last 29 yards to pull the Gamecocks within 21-14 by the end of the third period.
Mitchell coolly connected on five of six passes on Carolina's next possession. He found Kenny McKinley with an eight-yarder to cap a nine-play, 66-yard march that tied the score at 21 with 11:11 remaining and set up the wild finish.
Mitchell finished 31 of 45 for 290 yards. McKinley picked up 151 receiving yards on 14 catches and Boyd gained 160 yards on 20 carries for the Gamecocks, who slip to 6-3 overall and 3-3 in SEC play.
In spite of a poor second half, Ainge finished 26 of 44 for 216 yards. His favorite targets were Chris Brown (5 catches, 19 yards), Taylor (4 catches, 57 yards) and Briscoe (4 catches 48 yards). Foster paced the ground game with 75 yards on 19 carries.
Fulmer, elated after the dramatic finish, called the victory "a wonderful team win," and praised his players and staff for "a fantastic job."
The Vols host Louisiana-Lafayette this Saturday, then close the regular season with SEC showdowns against Arkansas (Nov. 10 in Knoxville), Vanderbilt (Nov. 17 in Knoxville) and Kentucky (Nov. 24 in Lexington).