``We've got to hang on some way,'' UT coach Phillip Fulmer said. ``We've got to fight and scratch to get to Atlanta because we 100 percent control our destiny.''
He's right. The Vols are 3-2 in the SEC, tied with Georgia in the loss column. If UT and Georgia win out and go 6-2, the Vols own the tie-breaker.
UT will be favored to win two of them. It likely will be an underdog at Kentucky.
Being a favorite or an underdog means nothing this season. Playing with emotion does. Fulmer's team seems to play better with its back to the wall, although you couldn't tell that in the second half against South Carolina.
Tennessee jumped to a 21-0 first-half lead, fell behind 24-21 with 84 seconds left, tied the game with 5 seconds remaining and won in overtime.
The post-game celebration was wild. But there will be no celebration at the end of the month if the Vols' don't shore up a horrible pass defense.
The coverage is too soft and the calls apparently are too confusing. And nobody seems able to put the clamps on the opponent's best receiver.
Kenny McKinley of South Carolina was the man UT needed to stop in the passing game. All he did was catch a school-record-tying 14 passes for 151 yards and one how-did-he-get-that-open touchdown catch.
The preceding week, Alabama's DJ Hall had a school-record 13 catches for 185 yards and three scores.
In the past two weeks, the opponent's top receivers have combined for 27 catches, 336 yards and four touchdowns.
That's not all. Florida's Percy Harvin had 120 yards on four catches and ran for 75 yards. Southern Miss' Chris Johnson had 127 yards on eight catches. California's DeSean Jackson had just four catches, but he had a game-changing 77-yard punt return.
Why can't Tennessee slow down the other team's main weapon?
``A lot of youth, understanding what position to be in,'' Fulmer said. ``If you wanted one answer, it's not consistently being in good position to make plays.''
Fulmer said opposing receivers are moving around. He also pointed out the Vols have lost five defensive backs since the start of last season, all of whom have started.
``We have the ability to double people,'' Fulmer said. ``We'll try to concentrate on the really good ones.''
Maybe so, but the results don't show it.
I've never seen UT's corners play so soft, sometimes lining up 12 yards off the ball. That allows for easy underneath completions.
``We're playing a lot of three deep, trying to keep things in front of us more, as youthful as we are,'' Fulmer said. ``We have the ability, which we did some Saturday, to press and play tighter.''
Are the corners playing too soft?
``If you win, you're not, if you lose, you think you are,'' Fulmer said. ``We want to grow toward being more physical at the corner.''
They better grow quickly. If UT doesn't fix the problem, look out.
Vanderbilt has the SEC's all-time leading receiver in Earl Bennett. Arkansas' Marcus Monk hasn't played much this season, but if he's healthy, he's dangerous, and he prevents defenses from stacking nine men in the box to take away the SEC's best running attack. Kentucky's Andre Woodson is one of the nation's best quarterbacks, and he's got three talented targets – Keenan Burton, Dickey Lyons Jr. and Jacob Tamme.
Tennessee might control its destiny, but if it doesn't control the opponent's top receiver, it won't get to the Georgia Dome.
CHAVIS GETS HIS WISH – FOUR TURNOVERS
Before the South Carolina game, defensive coordinator John Chavis said if the Gamecocks would agree to give UT four turnovers, like they did against Vanderbilt, it would be a good outcome for the Vols.
UT got four turnovers – and barely won.
Asked about the quote after the game, Chavis stepped back and laughed.
The defense isn't a laughing matter. Tennessee is on pace to set several dubious records. The Vols have allowed 250 points (31.25 points per game). The school record is 295 set in 2004. The Vols are giving up 418.5 total yards per game. The school mark is 415.7 set in 1982.
Those numbers aren't promising heading down the stretch.
FOSTER FUMBLE PROBLEMS CONTINUE
Arian Foster continues to lead the Vols in rushing – and untimely fumbles.
Foster fumbled on UT's game-tying field goal drive at the end of regulation but was saved when guard Jacques McClendon recovered.
``Arian is a fantastic back running the football,'' Fulmer said. ``At times he gets the ball away from his body way too much. We've coached it and worked it. He tries to do too much sometimes. He needs to learn to get the ball tucked high and tight and get what he can and get on the ground. He's spectacular, but with him running, somebody's band is going to play and it's not always yours.''
FULMER UPSET WITH ESPN COMMENTS
Fulmer was upset with an ESPN report in which the Game Day crew suggested the Vols were finished for this season, players were looking toward the NFL draft and the next thing the team had to look forward to was Signing Day.
``That's stupid, that's stupid stuff,'' Fulmer said. ``That's somebody that doesn't have any idea what Tennessee football is about. Now, they've got all the air time and I'll probably get ripped next time but I don't care right now.
``It's an unbelievable treat to be around these young guys and see the struggles they have and the fight they have and the hills and the valleys. That's the essence of coaching. I don't know anyone that hasn't had tough times in personal life or professional life or spiritual life. You fight back and these kids have a great spirit about them.''
EXTRA POINTS: Fulmer said he would like to use starting safety Eric Berry in the return game, but the defense is playing so many snaps – 84 against Alabama, 89 against South Carolina – and the secondary is so thin, he doesn't want to risk it. … After Britton Colquitt averaged 40.8 yards on six punts, Fulmer said his All-SEC punter punted ``like crap.'' … True freshman defensive end Ben Martin, who averaged 10-12 snaps in three previous games, didn't play a snap from scrimmage against Alabama or USC. … Fulmer said left tackle Eric Young (torn quad muscle) had surgery Sunday morning and cornerback Marsalous Johnson (knee) will have surgery Thursday. He also said the availability of running back Lennon Creer (knee) the rest of the season is to be determined. … UT has allowed three sacks, still the best in the nation. … UT has played four overtimes at Neyland Stadium. The previous three each ended 17-17 in regulation. … UT again practiced on Sunday night, the third time that's happened this season.