Fulmer needs a win

After Tennessee lost to Penn State in last season's Outback Bowl, I went to Orlando to visit a few theme parks.

When I returned to Knoxville four days later, I was surprised at the negative lingering affects of that game.

Tennessee fans were still ticked. Ticked that the Vols lost to a less talented Nittany Lions team. Ticked that UT didn't seem ready to play. Ticked that after Penn State took a fourth quarter lead after an Arian Foster fumble, the Vols didn't fight back.

In the minds of many, that loss undid a lot of good. It swept under the rug the fact Tennessee rebounded from a 5-6 season to go 9-3 and led two of the nation's best teams – Florida and LSU – by 10 points in the second half.

This season, Tennessee won the East Division for the first time since 2004, stealing that spot from two top 10 teams – Georgia and Florida. The Vols came close to winning the program's first SEC title since 1998.

Progress was made.

But if the 16th-ranked Vols lose to No. 18 Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl, much of the equity build up this season will be destroyed – just as it was a year ago.

Considering UT has lost five of its last seven bowl games, and considering UT hasn't won the last two games of a season since 1998, this is an important bowl for Fulmer.

A loss would put the Vols at 9-5 – only the third five-loss season under Fulmer. You don't think that would steal some pleasure out of a East Division title?

A loss would put Fulmer at 2-6 in his last eight bowl games. (By the way, Wisconsin is 9-3 in its last 12 bowls).

A loss would drop Tennessee out of the top 20 – the fifth time in eight seasons the Vols haven't cracked the top 20.

If you think you can contend for a national championship in the next two or three years – which Fulmer has said – it would be nice to cap this season with a bowl win over a decent - but not outstanding - Wisconsin team that starts just one senior on defense.

Tennessee will try to triumph without three starters and a key secondary reserve. Defensive tackle Demonte Bolden, linebacker Rico McCoy, receiver Lucas Taylor and cornerback Ricardo Kemp didn't pass six hours toward their major. Two others also bit the academic bullet.

That's inexcusable.

It also provides no excuse. While the players are responsible for their academics, coaches are responsible to make sure players are held accountable. More than the players dropped the ball on this anemic academic outcome. So don't cry foul if you don't win.

Where does this hurt Tennessee the most?

Run defense. Tennessee ranked ninth in the SEC in run defense and allowed 4.2 yards per rush. That doesn't bode well against a Wisconsin team that averaged over 200 rushing yards per game and has three quality running backs. Moreover, Bolden's absence affects a front four that doesn't have much depth. And, the Badgers have been a good second-half team while UT has been outscored 94-71 in the fourth quarter.

Watch for UT's front four tiring in the second half.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin is enjoying an offensive high. The Badgers have averaged 31.4 points under coordinator Paul Chryst, the highest three-year average in school history. And the 413.9 yards of total offense is one of the school's top five marks.

They led the Big Ten and rank second in the nation in time of possession (33:50) while the Vols ranked 10th in the SEC (28:29).

Wisconsin is playing in its fourth January bowl game in the past four seasons. Only two other schools - USC and West Virginia – can make that claim.

Tennessee is playing in its fourth January bowl in five years and 13th under Fulmer. The most recent two bowl wins for Fulmer came after losing the SEC title game. Maybe that's a good omen for UT.

Wisconsin hopes to join Michigan as the only Big Ten teams to beat an SEC team in three consecutive bowl games.

If that happens, Fulmer will have a long month ahead. He has to hire a new offensive coordinator, recruit blue-chip players and explain another bowl defeat.

The latter would leave a bitter taste in his mouth.

Here is a position-by-position matchup of UT and Wisconsin.

Quarterbacks: Erik Ainge completed 300 passes this season but UT fans remember the two fourth-quarter interceptions that cost Tennessee a chance to win the SEC Championship game. Ainge has a chance to redeem himself. And he should be the healthiest he's been all season, having battle a broken little finger and shoulder ailment. He has passed for 3,157 yards and 29 touchdowns. Wisconsin's Tyler Donovan has a slightly higher pass-efficiency rating, completing 57.9 percent of his passes for 2,452 yards and 16 touchdowns. He's got decent mobility. Edge: Ainge.

Running backs: UT's Arian Foster had 1,162 yards and 12 touchdowns but his production wasn't so good against quality opponents. Against Cal, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Arkansas and LSU, he averaged 71 yards per game. And Wisconsin held Michigan to 47 rushing yards. P.J. Hill rushed for 1,080 yards and 14 touchdowns but missed virtually three games. Freshman Zack Brown had 250 rushing yards in the season finale against Minnesota. Lance Smith rushed for 406 yards. Wisconsin is second in the Big Ten in rushing per game (201.5) – the highest since 1999. Edge: Even.

Receivers: Austin Rogers( 53) and Josh Briscoe (49) combined for 102 catches, but they won't make up for the loss of Taylor, who was three catches away from tying the school single-season record. Quintin Hancock, Gerald Jones or Denarius Moore must come through. Wisconsin's top weapon is All-American tight end Travis Beckum (73 for 960 yards). The top wideout is freshman Kyle Jefferson (23 catches). Edge: UT.

Offensive line: UT allowed a nation's best four sacks and while the run-game averaged just 144.6 yards, the average per carry among the backs was a solid 4.82. Badger running backs averaged over 5.0 yards per carry. The line starts two juniors, a senior and two freshmen. Edge: UT.

Defensive line: The Vols front four improved as the season progressed, but it still wasn't up to typical Tennessee standards, and it won't have Bolden. Opponents averaged 162.5 rushing yards per game and nine backs had 100-yard games. The unit has 12.5 sacks and 30.5 tackles for loss. Wisconsin allowed 139.8 rushing but only 107.8 in the last five games. It held Michigan to 47 yards. Ends Matt Shaughnessy and Kirk DeCremer combined for 10.5 of the team's 28 sacks. Edge: Wisconsin.

Linebackers: Jerod Mayo had a terrific season, registering 127 tackles – 49 in the last three games. The Vols have concerns here with Rico McCoy out (academics) and Ryan Karl injured (chipped bone in elbow). Karl should be able to play. Wisconsin weak side backer Jonathan Casillas led the team with 86 tackles. DeAnde Levy had 64. Elijah Hodge had 61. Edge: Even.

Secondary: UT's unit got better but it was still vulnerable, finishing 11th in the SEC in yards per game (245.1) and completion percentage (.594). Safety Eric Berry was a freshman All-American. Dennis Rogan, another true freshman, came on strong. Wisconsin gave up 210.7 yards and 54.9 completion rate – both third in the Big Ten. Free safety Shane Carter led the team with seven interceptions. Corner Jack Ikegwuonu had 15 pass breakups and caught Arkansas running back Darren McFadden from behind in last year's bowl win over the Hogs. Edge: Wisconsin.

Special teams: Daniel Lincoln was a freshman All-American after hitting 21 of 28 field-goal attempts and scoring 112 points – a school-record for a kicker. Britton Colquitt averaged 41.5 yards per punt, tailing off late in the season. Rogan provided a spark in punt returns. Wisconsin's Taylor Mehlhaff hit 20 of 24 field goals (83.3 percent). Ken DeBauche averaged 41.2 yards per punt. Badgers led the Big Ten in punt returns (12.5) and David Gilreath ranked first (14.9). He is the only player in school history to combine for more than 1,000 kick and punt return yards in a season (1,218). Wisconsin also leads the Big Ten in kick coverage with the help of 25 touchbacks. The Badgers have also recorded four blocks. Edge: Wisconsin.

Intangibles: Tennessee has won two of its last seven bowl games but each came after losing the SEC title game. Wisconsin has won its last two bowl games against SEC opponents after losing the first five. Who wants this one more? Tough question. Maybe Vols want to send assistants David Cutcliffe and Trooper Taylor out on a winning note. Edge: UT.

Prediction: Wisconsin 24, Tennessee 20.

Inside Tennessee Top Stories