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November 30, 2007

Vols hope to take advantage of opportunity

MORE: Who has the edge? | Video Preview

This isn't necessarily the Southeastern Conference Championship Game matchup that many fans wanted - or expected.

Tennessee doesn't care. The Volunteers aren't about to apologize for their presence at the Georgia Dome.

"A lot of people have been sitting here counting us out," Tennessee tight end Chris Brown said. "They can't count us out anymore."

Tennessee (9-3 overall, 6-2 in the SEC) was overlooked even as it controlled its destiny in the Eastern Division race. Tennessee's one-sided losses to Florida and Alabama created a consensus opinion that Georgia truly was the best team in the East, even though the Vols trounced the Bulldogs 35-14 midway through the season.

The prospect of Georgia keeping its national-title hopes alive by defeating a top-ranked LSU team in the championship game had dominated football-related conversations across the South for the past few weeks. All those plans went awry in the last week of the regular season.

LSU (10-2, 6-2) lost virtually any hope of playing for the national title after losing 50-48 in triple overtime to Arkansas. Georgia's chances of playing for the SEC championship disappeared when Tennessee clinched the Eastern Division title by beating Kentucky 52-50 in quadruple overtime.

Those two overtime classics have made Saturday's championship game a virtual non-factor in the national-title picture, but this game still means plenty to the teams involved.

LSU is seeking its first SEC crown since it won the BCS national title in 2003. Only the fifth-year seniors on the Tigers' roster have been part of a conference championship team.

"It's going to be tough to forget the national championship hopes," LSU running back Jacob Hester said, "but at least we have something to play for that a lot of teams would really love to (have)."

LSU's focus still could be a concern. The players can't afford to dwell on last week's loss to Arkansas. They can't worry about rumors linking LSU coach Les Miles to Michigan's opening, or rumblings connecting defensive coordinator Bo Pelini to the Nebraska vacancy. There also is the uncertainty surrounding quarterback Matt Flynn, who injured his shoulder last week and is questionable for Saturday's game.

Miles doesn't expect any potential distractions to bother his players or his staff.

"On this staff, I think that everybody is on the same page," Miles said. "There is no individual goal or professional opportunity that is more important than representing this football team to the best of our ability. This is a quality group of men.

"This football staff enjoys going to work with these players. There are no other views. There are no quick phone calls. It's about attention to detail, improving and playing our best in the game."

Tennessee hasn't needed to worry about those types of issues. The Vols' national title hopes vanished when they lost two of their first three games. Coach Phillip Fulmer has answered his skeptics by doing the best job of any SEC coach not named Sylvester Croom.

Tennessee has withstood season-ending injuries to cornerbacks Antonio Gaines and Marsalous Johnson and offensive tackle Eric Young. The Vols have won five consecutive games on their way to clinching the Eastern Division title.

"I had a pro friend of mine tell me that if they lost two corners and a left tackle, they'd probably bag the season," Fulmer said. "There wouldn't be a lot they could do."

Tennessee survived because of its ability to protect the passer and win close games. Three of the Vols' past five wins have come by three or fewer points. Freshman Daniel Lincoln beat South Carolina with an overtime field goal and provided the game-winning points against Vanderbilt with a fourth-quarter kick. Vandy and Kentucky each missed potential game-winning field goals against the Vols the past two weeks.

"This team has shown character and heart," Tennessee linebacker Jerod Mayo said. "It starts with Coach Fulmer and his staff. They've been criticized all year by the media, the fans and things like that. We've seen how they reacted and persevered through all the talk from other people. I think it trickles down to the players on the field."

The players' attitudes might not matter as much as the aptitude of the line. Tennessee has allowed only four sacks, the fewest of any team in the nation. The Vols' ability to protect Erik Ainge has helped him move eight completions away from Peyton Manning's 10-year-old single-season school record.

Then again, Tennessee hasn't faced a defensive line quite as good as the LSU front four that features Rivals.com national defensive player of the year Glenn Dorsey. The Vols won't have a realistic chance of pulling off the upset unless they give Ainge enough time to throw.

"I'm looking forward to a hard-fought game,'' Dorsey said.

Even if it's not the game many people anticipated.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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