Better than 2005?

As I watched Tennessee struggle to beat Vanderbilt, I was reminded of another recent Phillip Fulmer team.

Not the 2006 team, which had 10-point second-half leads against the nation's two best teams – Florida and LSU.

Not the 2004 team, which won the SEC East Division, losing to just one SEC team – undefeated Auburn.

Not the 2003 team, which won several close games and was No. 6 in the nation before being relegated to the Peach Bowl.

I was reminded of the 2005 team ... yes, that 2005 team.

In 2005, the Vols went 5-6, the only losing season under Fulmer.

There are two differences in this year's Vols and the '05 Vols: This year's team has gotten breaks to win close games and the offense is much better this year whereas the defense was much better two years ago.

Fulmer has had at least 10 teams better than this one – 1993, 1995-99, 2001, 2003, 2004, 2006. At the end of the season, the 1994 team was better and the 2000 team might have been better.

Fulmer has played for the East division title four times. This might be his fifth, but the only thing that would make this team special is to upset LSU in the SEC Championship game.

But first things first – Tennessee has to win at Kentucky.

The Vols have won 22 in a row over the Wildcats. The Vols had won 22 in a row over Vanderbilt until the Commodores sprung the upset in 2005.

Why do I think this is one of the five worst teams Fulmer has had?

Look at the results. Yes, it is 8-3 and ranked No. 19 going into the season finale. But look at the way it's played. And compare it to 2005.

In 2005, Tennessee lost by nine to Florida and by three to Alabama. UT actually outplayed the Crimson Tide in that defeat.

In 2007, the Vols lost by 39 to Florida and by 27 to Alabama. They got outscored by their two biggest rivals 100-37, compared to 22-10 in 2005. That's a whopping difference of 63 points to 12.

Tennessee in 2005 could hardly score against anybody, averaging 18.6 points per game and surpassing 21 points just four times.

This season, the Vols have had trouble stopping opponents, allowing six teams to score at least 21 points. UT is a field goal away from allowing the most points in a season in program history.

Tennessee played no better against Vanderbilt this year than two years ago. In 2005, the Vols outrushed the ‘Dores 251-49 with Arian Foster getting 223.

On Saturday, Vandy outrushed UT 131-105 and controlled the ball for 7 ½ more minutes. If not for a roughing-the-punter penalty, an injury to SEC all-time leading receiver Earl Bennett and a field goal that grazed the left upright, Vandy would have a second straight win over UT in Neyland Stadium.

That might have awakened the General from his grave.

It would have awakened George Cafego.

Want more evidence of why I don't think this team is more than a field goal better than 2005?

Take the South Carolina game. The Gamecocks soundly outplayed the Vols in the second half and, if not for a Foster fumble that was recovered 18 yards downfield by guard Jacques McClendon, UT loses. In 2005, Foster fumbled at the goal line and USC recovered, costing the Vols the game.

Tennessee has two wins this year better than any two wins in 2005. Two years ago, the best win was at No. 4 LSU in the Monday night game played after Hurricane Katrina.

So this year's team has that going for it, as well as three more wins to this point.

But two years ago, the Vols won at Kentucky 27-8. If UT can duplicate that feat this Saturday, then I'll retract the comparisons.

To date, this team is closer to the 2005 unit than last year's 9-4 squad.

This team has time to separate itself from the 2005 squad. But if it doesn't beat Kentucky and win a bowl game, this will go down as one of Fulmer's five worst teams.

And that means 2008 will largely determine Fulmer's future as UT's coach.

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