July 27, 2006

Tennessee fighting to get out of the valley

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HOOVER, Ala. A streak of 16 consecutive winning seasons, four Southeastern Conference championships and a national crown left most Tennessee football fans spoiled.

Coach Phillip Fulmer was, too.

Fulmer was at home grousing about the Volunteers uncharacteristic and unforeseen crash of 2005 when he was chastised by his wife, Vicky.

"My wife is a great coach's wife," Fulmer said Thursday. "She said, 'Phillip, you're spoiled.' I guess in some ways I was.

"She said, 'Sometimes to really enjoy the peaks you've got to have a valley.' "

Well, any peaks in the future will surely be appreciated because the Volunteers wandered through one heck of a valley last season. They finished 5-6 their worst season since 1988 with home losses to South Carolina and Vanderbilt. The Gamecocks had never before won in Knoxville, and Vanderbilt hadn't beaten the Volunteers since 1982.

The Vols didn't just lose games, they lost their composure. After falling to Vanderbilt players were criticized for throwing helmets, leaving helmets on the field, spitting at a camera man and refusing to do postgame interviews.

Three coaches from last year's team are gone, including offensive coordinator Randy Sanders who resigned before the season was complete.

"It was one of those seasons you just wanted to get it over," senior defensive tackle Justin Harrell said. "It was one of those years all the breaks happened to go to the other teams and we just kept shooting ourselves in the foot and finding a way to lose ballgames."

The passionate Tennessee fans couldn't believe it when the Vols, who had defeated LSU in Baton Rouge in September, lost four consecutive in the middle of the season and five of seven to close the year.

Some still have trouble coming to grips with it.

"When fans in town know you're on the Tennessee football team the first question you get is, 'What happened to you guys?' " Harrell said. "Then it's, 'How are you going to turn it around this year?' "

They intend to use last year's debacle as a learning experience. They say they've grown because last season made them groan.

"We've learned you can't take anything for granted," senior offensive tackle Arron Sears said. "You have to do whatever you can to win. We have grown a lot from last season. We all just have to work harder."

That shouldn't be a problem. Proud programs do not take losing seasons well and usually can't wait to get redemption.

"I think last year was an aberration, but we still have a lot of work to do to get back to where we want to be," Fulmer said. "I don't think you're just going to flip a switch and say, 'Oh, we're going to be back there.' The goal is always to be in the championship mix. We have a group of talented young players. If we play up to our expectations and our abilities, then we have a chance to make a run at it again.

"It's not like we're all the sudden void of talent."

Out of character
The 2005 collapse came after years of sustained success.
Tennessee's record from the last five seasons:
Year Record Conference
2001 11-2 7-1
2002 8-5 5-3
2003 10-3 6-2
2004 10-3 7-1
2005 5-6 3-5
The Volunteers have six starters back on offense, including Arian Foster who rushed for 879 yards while filling in for the injured Gerald Riggs Jr. Junior quarterback Erik Ainge has been painfully inconsistent, but he should improve under Offensive Coordinator David Cutcliffe. A master developer of quarterbacks, Cutcliffe returns to Tennessee after serving as head coach at Ole Miss from 1999-2004.

The defense, which ranked sixth in the nation last year, lost six starters. Three of those departed starters were linemen, but Fulmer said he feels the front won't be a problem. He admitted the linebackers could be an area of concern, especially with California's explosive running back Marshawn Lynch coming into Knoxville for the season opener.

"We don't quite have the experience, and particularly with our schedule that we have early, they've got to grow up fast," Fulmer said. "They've got to figure it out. They're going to make some mistakes on the run. But the defensive front, I expect us to be OK."

History indicates the Vols should be OK. Perhaps even more than OK.

Tennessee has not endured back-to-back losing seasons since 1910-1911 (3-5-1 and 3-4-2) and they followed their 5-6 finish in 1988 with an 11-1 finish and SEC championship in 1989.

But Fulmer cautioned the Vols cannot anticipate to bounce back merely because they are the Vols.

"There's no guarantees," he said. "We'd like to sprinkle that magic dust and everything would be fine. We've got a lot of work to do. We're working like heck to correct those things that we can correct.

"We've got to get our toughness back offensively. We've got to throw it and catch it. When people crowd the ball, that's what we've done. Those kind of things have to happen for us.

"We've had our fair share of good fortune. It darn sure balanced itself out last year, so we're even. We want to get back on track."

The Vols want to enjoy the peaks again.

Click here for more coverage of 2006 Football Media Days.

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