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September 21, 2008

Vols face long road to defend SEC East title

RELATED: Defense helps Florida dominate Tennessee

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. There was a time the Florida-Tennessee rivalry used to matter.

The series that served as the nation's ultimate early season measuring stick for most of the 1990s lost its luster about the same time Urban Meyer arrived at Florida and started treating Rocky Top like little more than a speed bump.

Florida's 30-6 victory over Tennessee on Saturday gave the Gators four consecutive victories over the Volunteers. The Gators have won the last two games by an average margin of 31.5 points and have outscored Tennessee 54-6 over the last five quarters.

Now it's time to start questioning Tennessee's relevance in the Southeastern Conference race, particularly with the Volunteers traveling to Auburn and Georgia two of the next three weeks.

"As I told our football team in the locker room, that loss is on me," Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said. "I've got big shoulders, and I take responsibility. That wasn't us."

Here's the scary part for Tennessee: Maybe that was a typical Tennessee effort this year. The team that turned the ball over twice after driving to the 1 on Saturday showed the same knack for self-destruction in a season-opening 27-24 overtime loss to UCLA.

Yes, that's the same UCLA team that has since lost to BYU and Arizona by a combined 90-10.

Tennessee quarterback Jonathan Crompton is stumbling. Tennessee's running backs are fumbling. Whenever the Vols get into the red zone, they're bumbling. Who can blame fans for grumbling?

"We just got beat by Florida," Tennessee center Josh McNeil said. "If we're not angry, something's wrong."

Tennessee has reason to believe it can turn things around. Last season, the Volunteers also dropped two of their first three games. They also opened the season with a road loss to a California team before getting whipped by Florida. They bounced back and won the SEC East title.

"As a coach, last year's team was one of those teams that drove you nuts, but they got better and better," Fulmer said. "We played with effort, we responded and we won. We played for the championship in Atlanta when a lot of other people had given up on us early. We won't give up, and we have a chance to be there again. It's just a little bit harder road."

Actually, it's a lot harder road.

Last season's team featured the senior leadership of Erik Ainge at quarterback. This team has Crompton, who has thrown four interceptions and only two touchdown passes.

Last season's team had offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe, who now is coach at Duke and already has made that program one of the nation's biggest surprises. This year's team has Dave Clawson, whose offense ranks 82nd in the nation in scoring.

Last season's team seemingly got every break imaginable and squeaked past South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Kentucky after all three teams missed critical field goals. This year's team has turned the ball over three times in the red zone and has outgained its opponent in each of its two losses.

Frankly, this team is more reminiscent of the 2005 Tennessee squad than the 2007 version. Tennessee went 5-6 in 2005, which also marked the Vols' last season without Cutcliffe. That team also had inconsistent quarterback production and a tendency to make mistakes in big situations.

That season also signaled a turning point in the Fulmer era.

Tennessee has gone 14-13 over its last 27 conference games, a stretch that started when the Vols fell 38-28 to Auburn in the 2004 SEC Championship Game. The Vols also are 3-9 in their past 12 games against top-10 opponents.

Those numbers make it hard to rate Tennessee as an elite program anymore. Not when a trip to Shreveport seems more likely than a return to Atlanta.

Fulmer undoubtedly will receive much of the blame for Tennessee's slow start and recent slide. The coaching staff failed to respond when UCLA made second-half adjustments in the season opener, and the Vols made numerous mental mistakes against Florida. But there's plenty of blame to go around.

"It's not on Coach Fulmer," McNeil said. "As a player who's been in a lot of football games, I put this loss on us. When you go out there and Coach calls good plays for a whole drive you have a 14-play, 80-yard drive and you can't put it in the end zone because of a turnover, that has nothing to do with Coach Fulmer. That's all on the players."

If the players can stop making so many mistakes, they just might salvage their season. Tennessee has a solid secondary that can bother most quarterbacks and an exceptional offensive line that can control the trenches against just about anyone.

That helps explain why the Vols remained confident even after a one-sided loss.

"Obviously we didn't want to start 1-2 like we are, but we did it last year and I know the personality of these guys and their fight and the confidence I have in them," Tennessee defensive end Wes Brown said. "We're going to bounce back and we'll be fine."

They'll have to show more fight than they have thus far, or this season could get away from them in a hurry. Next is a trip to Auburn, and this team certainly doesn't resemble an SEC contender at the moment.

RELATED: Defense helps Florida dominate Tennessee

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

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