Overwhelming in overtime

Offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe is tight-lipped about Tennessee's game plan for Saturday's SEC Championship Game with LSU. Defensive coordinator John Chavis is similarly secretive.

No problem. The key to a Vol victory is rather obvious: Tennessee needs to be tied at the end of regulation because the Big Orange is overwhelming in overtime. Last Saturday's 52-50 defeat of Kentucky in Lexington improved Phillip Fulmer's record in overtime affairs to an eye-popping 7-1.

Tennessee has won in one overtime (vs. Florida in 1998, vs. South Carolina in 2003 and 2007, vs. LSU in 2005). The Vols also have won in four overtimes (vs. Kentucky in 2007), in five overtimes (vs. Alabama in 2003) and in six overtimes (vs. Arkansas in 2002). They've won by scoring first in overtime and they've won by scoring last in overtime. They've won after squandering leads in regulation and they've won after overcoming leads in regulation.

Tennessee's only overtime failure was a 38-31 loss to LSU at Baton Rouge in 2000. Otherwise, the Vols have been extraordinary in extra periods.

The obvious question: Why?

"I think there's a toughness in our program that's built in the offseason, built in spring practice," Fulmer said this week.

The fact is, overtime scarcely resembles football. There are no kickoffs or punts. Field position is a moot point. The clock is a non-issue, except the play clock. Each team gets one possession at the opponent's 25-yard line, so the game essentially is reduced to a 25-yard field. That may be where Tennessee gets an advantage.

"The fact we spend a lot of time in those areas of the field (25-yard line to the goal line) in practice ... that's very crucial," Fulmer said, adding that his team is "not just practicing overtime but practicing ball-at-the-10, ball-at-the-8, seven-on-seven. Every week we practice going in (from close to the goal line) and practice coming out (from close to the goal line) as part of our routine."

Since two teams going into overtime already have played 60 minutes of football, depth and determination also come into play.

Fulmer says there is "an innate mental toughness about our team" because it spends so much practice time attacking and defending the end zone from the so-called Orange Area (20-yard line in). This is football at its most basic.

"Sometimes," the coach said, "people get so caught in schemes and everything that the coaches forget to teach ‘em how to play football."

And, sometimes, the game comes down to heart. Tennessee certainly showed plenty of heart last Saturday vs. Kentucky. The Vol defense was on the field for a mind-boggling 110 snaps.

"That's a lot of plays," Fulmer conceded. "But I never saw anybody just dragging off the field – really on either side. We're obviously a well-conditioned football team."

Although the Vol coach is generally satisfied with the NCAA's overtime format, he has one major complaint. Live-ball fouls committed after a change of possession are not penalized. Thus, Kentucky lost no yardage last Saturday when one of its players tackled UT's Eric Berry by the face-mask on a blocked-field goal return. Fulmer plans to complain to NCAA brass about this loophole.

"I will make an issue of that," he said. "I didn't know that rule, and I should have. That doesn't seem right…. That foul against Eric, that could've broken his neck."


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