Season on the Brink

Faith is in short supply in Big Orange Country and the cup of patience hardly runneth over, on the other hand, rumor, speculation, conjecture and criticism rage like the gales of November.

As the losses mount and opportunity dwindles in a football season that is 66 percent complete, the future of Tennessee football has become a guessing game, grist for the gossip gin and rumor mill.

Head football coach Phillip Fulmer has felt pressure before — anyone who serves as long as he has in the SEC can expect that — but never to this degree. He still has strong support in some quarters but the most vocal elements of the UT fan base are screaming for his scalp.

The strain of the Vols lost season is etched on the head coach's face more each week, while answers to the problems appear elusive if not nonexistent. He may still have a typical strong stretch run, but it won't be enough to wipe away the growing doubts about the direction of the program. There isn't an opponent left on the schedule that could provide that type of cover in terms of assuring job security or regaining the confidence of the disenchanted.

And it goes beyond merely losing decisively to UT's three biggest rivals — Florida, Georgia and Alabama. Undoubtedly a case could be made for the Vols reaching the SEC title game last season and making five trips in the last 12 seasons to Atlanta. However that type of track record also underscores the Vols' inconsistency under Fulmer.

How's that you ask?

The last three times Tennessee reached the SEC title game has done little more than raise false hopes. Here's a quick review:

• In 1999 the Vols looked like a team that could successfully defend their national title. In fact with John Henderson joining the starters on the defensive front along with Albert Haynesworth they had a chance to be stronger on defense where it matters most. The offense returned starting QB Tee Martin along with a backfield that included Jamal Lewis, Travis Henry and Travis Stephens along with Cedric Wilson and Donte Stallworth at receiver. But the Vols were upset in the season's ninth game at eight-point underdog Arkansas. Ironically the Vols had just moved into the No. 1 spot in the BCS rankings that same week. They ended the 9-3 season with a 31-21 loss to Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl.

• In 2001 UT posted a 10-1 regular season and were favored to beat an LSU team in the SEC Championship game it had already subdued in the regular season. When the Vols jumped out to an early lead and the Tigers lost their starting quarterback along with two tailbacks, it looked like Tennessee had a clear path to the Rose Bowl and a second NCAA title shot in four years. Instead they lost 30-20. UT did go on to destroy Michigan in a first ever meeting between these national powers to finish the year at 11-2.

Tennessee's slogan for 2002 was "Unfinished Business" and the Vols were picked by many to win the national championship. Instead they struggled through an injury plagued campaign that ended in a 31-3 loss to Maryland in the Peach Bowl and finished 8-5 with blowout home losses to Florida, 30-13, to Alabama 34-14, and to Miami 26-3.

• In 2004 Tennessee reached the SEC title game and faced undefeated Auburn for the second time that season, having lost to the Tigers in Knoxville 34-10. The Vols played better in the rematch, dropping a 38-28 decision. After the defeat UT went on to record an impressive 38-7 win over Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl. That performance and the Vols 10-3 record was enough to convince most observers to pick Tennessee as a top 10 team the next season. The Vols responded with a 5-6 mark for their first losing season in 17 years.

• In 2007 Tennessee overcame one-sided defeats to California, Florida and Alabama to get a shot at the SEC title against LSU. The Vols played the Tigers tough but dropped a 21-14 decision. Once again the Vols rallied to a victory over Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl to finish the campaign at 10-4. UT returned eight starters on offense and six on defense along with 47 total lettermen.

There is a decided pattern here of wild inconsistency, failure to live up to expectations, playing below potential and suffering an embarrassing sequence of home losses. There's also the fact the Vols reached the SEC title showdown in 2004 and 2007 despite two conference defeats.

Then there's the curious matter of bowl games. Tennessee has won only three bowl games since winning the national title in 1998, and each of those wins came after a loss in the SEC Championship game. Conversely, each season following a trip to the title game the Vols failed to build on the achievement. Their record in the seasons following reaching title games in 2001, 2004 and 2007 is a mediocre 16-16 with four games remaining on the slate.

There are fans loyal to Fulmer who feel he should be given a chance to get it fixed. There are others who feel Fulmer is not capable of getting it fixed any longer and should be fired. Therein lies the problem because a fan based divided can not stand.

Ultimately the story of Tennessee football is its fans. They are the ones that make the program a success. They are the ones that build the facilities, pack the stadium. pay the coaches and attract the prospects. When a season gets so bad they refuse to pay to watch or stay to support the team you have problems that can't be dismissed without incurring major consequences.

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