By: RANDY MOORE
Tennessee's Phillip Fulmer is trying to decide whether or not to dust off a trick play for the SEC Championship Game. LSU's Les Miles is trying to decide whether or not to announce he's leaving for the top job at Michigan before the Tigers' bowl game.
One head coach is focused. One coach is not.
Tennessee's John Chavis is seeking a consistent pass rush. LSU's Bo Pelini is seeking the head coaching vacancy at Nebraska.
One defensive coordinator is focused. One defensive coordinator is not.
Tennessee is riding a five-game winning streak. The Vols view the SEC Championship Game as the culmination of a remarkable rally. LSU has lost two of its last six games and has blown the national title, despite the most talented roster in college football. The Tigers view the SEC Championship Game as an obligation they must meet before getting a bowl bid.
One team is focused. One team is not.
Tennessee fans are excited after watching their overachieving team rise from the ashes to snare a division title. LSU fans are disappointed after watching their underachieving team fall from the No. 1 national ranking to also-ran status ... not once, but twice.
One fan base if focused. One fan base is not.
These are all good reasons to like Tennessee's chances Saturday at The Georgia Dome. The capper, though, is this: Tennessee is riding an emotional high after posting a four-overtime defeat of Kentucky, whereas LSU is on an emotional low after suffering a three-overtime loss to Arkansas.
I've written this before but it bears repeating: SEC teams who lose a heartbreaker one weekend tend to suffer a meltdown the following weekend. Here's proof:
Arkansas loses 41-38 to Alabama via a controversial finish on Sept. 15, then implodes in a 42-29 home-field setback to Kentucky one week later.
Alabama suffers a gut-wrenching 26-23 overtime loss to Georgia on Sept. 22, then sleepwalks through a 21-14 setback to Florida State seven days later.
Ole Miss gives Bama fits before falling 27-24 on Oct. 13, then suffers a 44-8 home-field blowout at the hands of Arkansas seven days later.
Kentucky loses 45-37 to Florida on Oct. 20, then gives its worst performance of the year in a 31-14 home-field shocker to Mississippi State seven days later.
South Carolina squanders a three-point lead in the final minute of regulation and sustains a 27-24 overtime loss to Tennessee on Oct. 27, then surrenders 651 yards of total offense in a 48-36 thrashing at the hands of Arkansas the following weekend.
Alabama pushes second-ranked LSU to the limit before losing 41-34 on Nov. 3, then falls flat in bowing 17-12 at Mississippi State the following weekend.
Coming off that emotionally draining loss to Arkansas, LSU will be flat this weekend. Tennessee won't be, and that's where the outcome will be determined.
DANGER: WOUNDED TIGERS AWAIT
By: JEFFERY STEWART
For Tennessee fans it's easy to look at the records and last week's results and project the Vols a solid underdog poised to pounce on an unsuspecting LSU.
That may be exactly what happens, however, it won't be because the Tigers are overlooking Tennessee. Last week's loss to Arkansas not only cost LSU a cherished shot at another national title it also took away any cover the underdog Vols had going into Atlanta.
Had the Tigers handled Arkansas with ease, they would have breezed into the SEC Championship game ripe for defeat. Now they will be focused, motivated and ticked. Wounded pride makes the Tigers more dangerous and makes this game far more important than playing in the Sugar Bowl. This game represents redemption for a team that has been in the national title picture the last two seasons while going 21-4.
Over that same span the Vols have stayed on the fringes, not beating the toughest competition and sometimes not even competing. In fact, Tennessee's last three SEC defeats — to Arkansas, Florida and Alabama were by a combined score of 131-54.
LSU hasn't had any setbacks of that dimension. In fact, both ot the Tigers defeats came in overtime, while two of Tennessee's victories were the OTvariety. Reverse those outcomes and you probably have a better picture of each team's relative strength. LSU would be 12-0. Tennessee would be 7-5, and nowhere near Atlanta this weekend.
In other words, LSU always expected to be playing for the SEC title while Tennessee was hoping to compete for it. After the 59-20 defeat to Florida no one could have liked the Vols chances. Then the 41-17 beating in Tuscaloosa did nothing to raise UT's national esteem or title hopes.
In truth Tennessee may have exhausted its potential just to reach this point. Surviving a trio of SEC contests against South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Kentucky (none of which has a winning Conference mark) in the last four games may have taken an emotional toll on the Vols. Moreover they've heard little other than praise during their current five-game losing streak, making it harder to stoke the emotional fires needed to knock off a team the stature of LSU.
There's always a chance the Tigers may stay in the dumps after losing to Arkansas, but they have a history of responding well to such heartbreak under Les Miles. Last year after losing to Auburn, 7-3, they blew out Tulane 49-7. After a hard fought loss to Florida in the Swamp, they routed Kentucky 49-0. After losing to Kentucky in overtime this season they responded with back-to-back victories over Auburn and Alabama. Even back in 2005 they exhibited a propensity for rapid recovery. After losing to the Vols 30-27 in overtime, they mauled Mississippi State 37-7 and ran the table.
Beyond the emotional and strategic considerations, the Tigers pose match-up problems for Tennessee. LSU has an explosive and balanced offense with the best set of wide receivers the Vols have seen since Florida. And LSU has the best defense UT has seen this season, period. The Tigers are No. 1 against the rush and No. 2 against the pass, and No. 1 overall in the SEC.
Undoubtedly, LSU's coaching staff is aware of the importance of getting pressure on Eric Ainge, who has had two difficult outings against the Tigers in 2005 and 2006. It also possesses the means to apply pressure with outstanding DBs and excellent overall speed on defense.
If that's enough to give the most wild-eyed Big Orange optimist cause for concern, read on McDuff. Two words: Georgia Dome. It has been a house of horrors for the Vols since 2001, when UT lost to LSU a week after finally whipping Florida in the Swamp. No Rose Bowl. No BCS title game. That was followed in 2002 by an embarrassing 30-3 defeat to Maryland in the Peach Bowl. History repeated itself in 2003 as the Vols wrapped up their season with an uninspired 27-13 loss to Clemson. Finally, there is the 2004 SEC title game which Tennessee lost to Auburn 38-28. That's four straight double-digit losses in the Vols last four games in the Dome of doom.
By comparison, LSU won it's last game in 2006 with an impressive win over Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl. This year it defeated Tulane in the Super Dome 34-9. In the 2005 Peach Bowl, the Tigers destroyed No. 9 Miami, 40-3, in the Dome.
Good night and pleasant dreams.