Fans were ready to throw in the towel.
Phillip Fulmer was not.
``Against one of our biggest opponents (Alabama), we stunk it up,'' Fulmer said. ``When I came back (from Tuscaloosa) I beat on the podium, I changed the practice schedule, and I made them understand if we don't give up the football, don't give up big plays, we can win some football games.''
Maybe so. But it seemed so far-fetched than Tennessee would win the East Division. Florida had lost twice – surprisingly – and would have to lose a third time.
They found a way, beating South Carolina and Kentucky in overtime, routing Arkansas in a terrific performance and edging Vanderbilt thanks in large part to a roughing-the-punter penalty and an injury to the Commodores best player, receiver Earl Bennett.
The four-overtime thriller at Lexington put Tennessee in the SEC Championship game for the fifth time in 11 years. The opponent: LSU.
``We have our shortcomings, certainly,'' Fulmer said. ``We don't have a dominant man up front. We've lost a lot in the secondary, although this group is more athletic – we just don't have the experience.
``We've played some good football. We were just giving up big plays.''
That trend continued against Kentucky – in the second half.
Tennessee, which allowed 15 plays of 20 or more yards in losses to Cal, Florida and Alabama, gave up 20 plays of 10 or more yards to Kentucky in the second half (counting overtime) – four covering at least 20 yards.
Kentucky scored three touchdowns in the second half and three more in overtime. The Wildcats had second-half scoring drives of 14, six, eight and 19 plays as they converted 10 of 20 third-down tries.
``I said at the beginning of the year Kentucky has the best skill people of anybody we play in the conference, and they certainly did,'' Fulmer said.
So Tennessee has fought its want to another trip to the Georgia Dome. The Vols haven't gone more than two years without playing for the SEC title since winning the national championship in 1998.
``We knew what our goals were at the beginning of the season – go to the SEC Championship game,'' said defensive tackle Dan Williams. ``We knew what was on the line (against Kentucky).
``All year long, people were downing us. We just had to show up.''
Now they will show up in Atlanta, with the least talented Tennessee team that has made the trip to the Georgia Dome.
``We're not the most talented group,'' Fulmer admitted, ``but we're talented enough to be East Division champions, which is pretty darn good.''
But Fulmer said the goal wasn't just to reach the SEC Championship game.
``We want to win it,'' Fulmer said. ``We got there in 2001 and it (losing to LSU) cost us a (chance to win) national championship. We tied in '03 and didn't get to go and in '04 we played an undefeated Auburn team.
``LSU is easily, probably, the most talented team in our conference and probably PO'ed after losing to Arkansas.''
Tight end Brad Cottam said the team is eager to face the challenge.
``We're ready,'' Cottam said. ``We know we've got another game to prepare for. … Nobody wants to go down there to lose.''
FOSTER CHASING ALL-TIME RUSHING RECORD
His 118 rushing yards came on 27 carries. He had nine catches for 98 yards.
``Arian had a fantastic day,'' Fulmer said. ``He broke a lot of tackles, ran really hard. I'm very proud of Arian and the improvement he's made during the course of the year. If he stays on track, he'll be Tennessee's all-time leading rusher before he leaves.''
Foster has 1,107 yards this season, giving him 2,308 yards in his career. He needs 770 yards to break the record held by Travis Henry (3,078). He has two more games this season to add to the total, and, all of next season.
EXTRA POINTS: With six receptions, UT's Lucas Taylor tied a school record with 71 catches this season, the same mark as Robert Meachem a year ago. … With eight points, Daniel Lincoln, a redshirt freshman, set a school-record for most points by a kicker in a season (110). The old mark was 107 by Greg Burke.