Monday, October 01, 2007

The Crossroads of Tennessee Football

Sometimes we/I want things to be bigger than they are. We want to feel like things are more special, or they're unique, or we're playing on a level or stage we've never been to before. Both Phillip Fulmer and every basketball coach since Wade Houston have scored several W's that were called "the most important win of their careers" in the days following. There have been several games where you can look at them in hindsight - for Fulmer, 1995 against Alabama or Ohio State, 1997 against Auburn, a multitude of games from 1998, 2001 at Florida - where they've become mythical, career-defining Ws. The early ones helped lay the foundation and progress his career, the latter ones helped cement it.

But the problem is, now the foundation has cracks that are becoming more apparent. The years have piled on since the last national championship (9), conference championship (9), or division title (3). The SEC is a here and now world, and the here and now for the Vols isn't where we want it to be.

And so we arrive at the crossroads, both for Fulmer and for Tennessee. And it will never be more glaringly apparent than it will Saturday afternoon, when the Georgia Bulldogs come to town.

The 2007 incarnation of the Vols and Dawgs won't be the biggest game in program history for either team. The Vols are unranked and Georgia's not undefeated. It won't become the biggest win in the legacies of Phil Fulmer or Mark Richt. But for the 2007 season, and for the career of Phillip Fulmer, this is the crossroads. And while this won't be anywhere near the biggest game in Fulmer's tenure, and hindsight will always be 20/20, five days beforehand, it clearly appears to be the most important game for Fulmer's career, right here, right now. The crossroads have never been more apparent.

Polls on the News-Sentinel's website have fan support for Phillip Fulmer at an alltime low, with around 70% against him at this point. Tennessee hasn't had a great year since 2004, had a low point in 2005, and then balanced the good memories from the fast start in 2006 with losses to LSU, Arkansas, and Penn State.

And here's the thing about the two losses this year, because part of you feels like it can't be the worst thing in the world. In 2002, the Vols finished 8-5...but that team was also decimated by injuries. They gave away 24 points in less than five minutes in an unbelieveably-freakish fashion in the rain against Florida. They started CJ Leak and played James Banks at Georgia. They lost Kelley Washington before the Alabama game. They had no answer for #1 Miami. Some fans didn't even really get mad at them until the Peach Bowl loss to Maryland. But either way, injuries took a lot of the blame in 02, and it was Fulmer's first real blemish.

In 2005 - where the Vols, just as they had in 2002, started in the Top 5 - all of the losses were close except one. The Vols lost by 9 at Florida, then beat LSU in The Rally at Death Valley for a memorable scrapbook piece, lost to Georgia by 13, lost to Alabama by 3 on a freak fumble, lost to South Carolina by 1, then got blasted by Notre Dame, and lost to Vanderbilt by 4. 2005 cost Randy Sanders his job...but again, you can make the argument that the Vols were right there all year.

This time around, there's no marquee (05 LSU) or memorable (02 Arkansas 6 OTs) win at this point. There are few injuries - really, I don't think we're going to blame the 2-2 start on Antonio Gaines or even Erik Ainge's pinky. And the losses haven't been close, even if it may have felt like it - 45-31 at Cal, 59-20 at Florida. The latter being the worst loss of the Fulmer administration. Both of them including an MIA defense. Both spelling trouble.

If Tennesee loses, they'll be 2-3. And while they won't be mathematically eliminated from the SEC East race, they'll have lost to Florida and Georgia, which are the two most important games of the year. And at 2-3, while a decent year could still be saved, all hopes of a season that's viewed as unanimously good will go out the window. In the minds of most, the season will be effectively over, and you'll hear something you never thought you'd hear: "Wait 'til basketball season."

If Tennessee loses, while Fulmer could probably save his job by winning out from that point, he may not be able to save his perception with the fanbase. And that alone may be too much for Mike Hamilton to ignore. And while I'm not a proponent of discussing a coach's fate during the season, I don't believe Hamilton lives in that world. Neither do the majority of Vol fans, most of whom are angry already. They already want Fulmer's head. If Tennessee loses on Saturday, it's going to become a roar. And for the first time in Fulmer's career, you look at a game, and you think that he might not survive this. Randy Sanders isn't around to take the fall in 2007. Fulmer's grace is gone. This is it.

In 1992, when all of this started for Fulmer, Johnny Majors returned to an undefeated team, won a couple games from there, then lost to Arkansas and Alabama in succession to go from National Championship contender to afterthought. Fulmer was a hot commodity, and the voices against Majors were louder and louder. And the Vols went to South Carolina...and you felt like, if Majors lost again, that Fulmer would become the man. 15 years later, the story may have come full circle.

But...

What's interesting about that 92 South Carolina game is that, despite the struggles and the unrest and all of that, if the Vols won, they'd control their own destiny in the SEC East. All they had to do was win, and they'd be fine. Instead, the Vols lost by one point, and down went Majors.

In 2007, the SEC East won't be decided on Saturday. This appears to be a fight to the finish, and the Vols' remaining SEC schedule offers nothing free, and will offer the beauty and the curse of a big game every week. This isn't about dominance anymore, it's about survival and being the last man standing. And right now, thanks to Auburn, Tennessee is still in that race.

If Tennessee loses, it'll be tangible glooom and doom. The program, and the career of Fulmer, will fall deeper into tailspin. Nothing good down that path.

But...

If Tennessee wins, they'll have put some forward momentum in a 2007 season that really needs it right now. The Vols are 2-2 and unranked, and the wins over Southern Miss and Arkansas State aren't making the Vol Nation feel any better. Beating Georgia is always fun - and the Dawgs haven't lost in Knoxville since...wait for it...1999. That's right - three games, three wins, and really it was three plays:

- The "Hobnailed Boot" pass at the end of David Greene's mythical drive in 2001 in a 26-24 Georgia win, that would've been arguably the most heartbreaking loss of all time in Knoxville, if something worse didn't happen later that year in Atlanta.

- The fumbled exchange from Casey Clausen on a handoff at the end of the first half in 2003, with the Vols trailing 13-7 but going in to score, which was then recovered by Georgia and returned 90+ yards for a touchdown. Instead of 14-13 Vols, it was 20-7 Dawgs. Floodgates, engage. Georgia goes on to win 41-14.

- A backbreaking 4th quarter punt return in 2005, once more turning a 13-7 game into a 20-7 hole that could not be overcome. Georgia went on to win 27-14, and the 05 season would only get worse.

While the Vols have silenced the Athens masses by winning between the hedges in each of their last two trips, not allowing Georgia to walk out of Neyland with a win again is big all by itself. Doing so might be enough to get the Vols back in the Top 25.

And again...Florida's loss offers real hope. Just as it's true that Fulmer's probably toast if the Vols lose, if the Vols win, they'll probably be in control of their own destiny if LSU beats Florida three hours later. And it'll take all year to bring it home...but the Vols can be right back in the front of the line on Saturday. That's not spin or false hope or dreams, that's fact - a Tennessee win and an LSU win - both of whom are favored - would put Tennessee ahead of Florida on the path to Atlanta. Believe it or not, optimist or pessimist, you can't argue fact.

And back in control and riding the momentum of a win over Georgia, I can promise you it'll feel like a new season on Sunday morning. No matter how bad September was, if the Vols and LSU win on Saturday, it'll all be made new. And if that happens, then we can talk about how it's going to be a nervous breakdown sort of ride towards Atlanta every week. But for now - and for the future if it happens - it's just about this week. I cannot remember a greater risk/reward game in the history of Tennessee Football.

Does Fulmer have what it takes to pull this one out? Will the Vols be up off the deck and executing at the necessary level to be #12 Georgia? The only comparison I can think of is the 5 OT game with Alabama in 2003, when the Vols had lost at Auburn, then got blown out at home against Georgia (the 41-14 game), then had an off week, and the natives were restless. And as those overtimes played on in Tuscaloosa, and there were several moments where it seemed like the Vols were beat, I sat in the upper deck that night and wondered if Randy Sanders would be fired right away if we lost, or if he'd survive the rest of the year and then get the axe. And as stated, there's no Randy Sanders in 2007.

But the Vols won. It took 5 OTs and some "unwatchable" football, but they won. And by hook or by crook, suddenly things were better. And then a few weeks later, the Vols went to Miami as double digit underdogs and won again, and would eventually vault to #6 in the polls before losing to Clemson in another Georgia Dome disaster. But the point remains - in this game, you can go from the gallows to glory in a heartbeat.

And so now, it's never been more clear for Fulmer. If you lose, you lose the season in the minds of many, and we start talking about how bad it can get. Or worse for the program, we start talking about basketball. That's not a joke, and that is what will happen. And it's also not a joke that if you lose, you're putting your job in someone else's hands.

But if you win, you can be back on the road to glory, even if Florida wins in Baton Rouge. Best and most realistic scenario - again, the Vols and Tigers are the favorites on Saturday - has Tennessee in control of its own destiny on Sunday morning. And all things will be new. It's a nightmare if you lose. It could be a championship if you win. There is no middle ground. For Phillip Fulmer, for 2007, and for the direction of Tennessee Football, Saturday at Neyland Stadium is the definitive crossroads.

All you have to do is win.

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