Defense wins games?

If defense is supposed to win championships, then what is Tennessee doing in the SEC Championship game?

Statistically, this is the worst defense in Tennessee history.

The Vols have surrendered 344 points. The previous high was 295 in 2002.

Granted, the numbers are a bit misleading. Five touchdowns came via fumble or punt or interception returns and 19 points came in a four-time victory over Kentucky.

Subtract those, and you get 290 points.

Still, Tennessee's defense is giving up more than 400 yards per game and the pass defense is awful. It ranks no better than 11th in the SEC in passing yards allowed per game and pass-defense efficiency.

That has to be a huge concern for the Vols against an LSU quarterback, Matt Flynn, who is fifth in the SEC in passing, averaging over 200 yards per game.

Tennessee's pass defense was at it worst in the second-half against Kentucky, giving up 352 passing yards and five touchdowns.

But UT coach Phillip Fulmer said the team has shown improvement across the board.

``That's sort of the essence of coaching,'' Fulmer said. ``This team has been fun. It wasn't fun going through some of the things we went through, but it's been fun to see the improvement at almost every position, not just one or two spots.

``They've kept the faith when other people have doubted them.''

While the secondary still is doubted, Fulmer said his team has enjoyed the role of being criticized.

``We've been underdogs all season long and will be Saturday,'' Fulmer said. ``Not many people on this teleconference think we can win, except me.''

Did Fulmer really expect to be in this position after losing 41-17 at Alabama to drop to 2-2 in SEC play?

``I don't think I doubted the team or the staff,'' Fulmer said. ``It was a matter of how soon we could get it back on course. … We got it back quickly.

``A pro friend of mine told me if he lost two corners and a left tackle, they'd probably bag the season.''


Fulmer is a bit worried about fatigue with his team.

The Vols will be playing their 13th game, and the four-overtime thriller at Kentucky drained a defense that played 110 snaps – an NCAA record, according to Fulmer.

``That will be a challenge,'' Fulmer said.

Fulmer said the midseason adjustment he made by moving practice to Sunday than giving players off Monday has paid dividends.

``The kids are in good shape,'' Fulmer said. ``Hopefully, we'll get great effort out of the team. I think they'll be ready, I really do. Adrenalin will take over and the excitement of the game. We've got to do a good job with our plan.''

LSU is coming off a three-overtime loss to Arkansas, but that was Friday, giving the Tigers an extra day of rest.

Regarding injuries, tailback Montario Hardesty reinjured his ankle. It is not known if he'll be ready for the SEC title game.

Cornerback Brent Vinson banged up his shoulder again and he'll need surgery after the season. Fulmer praised the toughness of the true freshman.

``Some guys could do that (play through the injury),'' Fulmer said. ``Some guys couldn't. He comes from a tough high school, a tough background. He's a competitor. You expect that from an old offensive lineman or defensive lineman. Sometimes receivers or defensive backs aren't quite like that. He has a tough mentality.''

Defensive end Xavier Mitchell suffered a stinger but should be OK.


With LSU's loss, the Tigers are out of contention for the national championship.

LSU coach Les Miles was asked if that might have an impact on the team's motivation going into the SEC title game.

``It's not about playing in the Sugar Bowl or the game for the national championship,'' Miles said. ``It's fundamentally about winning the conference championship. What a great opportunity for this team to go to Atlanta and play in the finest football conference championship game in the country.

``Certainly there will be disappointment that some of our goals were left behind (with the Arkansas defeat). But I think everybody in this building will come to recognize you play first and foremost for the West title and second for the conference championship. And that opportunity is still before this team.

``We'll give them a couple of days to sulk, a couple of days to be unhappy and then a couple of days to realize we're still in great position to achieve the conference championship. That's quite an achievement for any team.''


If Tennessee wins the SEC title, the Vols are going to the Sugar Bowl.

If the Vols lose, they likely are headed to the Chick Fil-A Bowl in Atlanta. The Cotton Bowl liked UT, but Arkansas's win over then-No. 1 LSU elevated the Hogs into the top spot in Dallas.

The Capital One Bowl will take Florida or Georgia (provided LSU wins the SEC). The Outback would then probably take Auburn.

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