20 Losses in 20 Years #8 - Phillip Fulmer's Last Chance

There's been a lot of conversation recently about the weight of Phillip Fulmer's decision to hire Dave Clawson in January 2008, and how much differently things might have gone had Fulmer instead chosen Michigan's Mike DeBord.  Obviously Clawson was a total disaster, and is still the person I blame the most for Tennessee's downfall (which may or may not be fair, I'm still blinded by rage), so hiring anyone other than him would've made things better than they ended up.  But had the Vols gone with DeBord, the thought was they would also bring along his QB coach, Scot Loeffler...and he would've brought along his quarterback looking to transfer, Ryan Mallett.

You can drive yourself crazy thinking about playing the potential #1 pick in the 2011 draft instead of Jonathan Crompton, Matt Simms, or Tyler Bray.  But for Fulmer - who still has to feel the decision to hire Clawson was his downfall - it's still a mysterious sort of "what if" game to think about Mallett. 

To me, a less mysterious and far more interesting "what if" with Fulmer's career is, "What if Erik Ainge doesn't throw two interceptions in the final ten minutes in the Georgia Dome in December 2007?"

If you're trying to track how recently it could've been different for Fulmer (and you assume Clawson still would've been hired and the Clawfense still would've finished 116th in total offense and 111th in scoring offense...[FULMERIZED]), what if the Vols had beaten LSU in the 2007 SEC Championship Game?  Would that one win - combined with what would've been a date in the Sugar Bowl against the same Hawaii team that Georgia destroyed - have been enough to save Fulmer even if the Vols went 5-7 in 2008?

8. 2007:  #5 LSU 21 - #14 Tennessee 14 (SEC Championship)

A long and strange year led to a long and strange day in Atlanta.  The Vols lost the season opener and to their two biggest rivals by a combined score of 145-68, which meant Fulmer was facing heat like he'd never seen before.  But the Vols kept cooling it off with performances like a 35-14 win over eventual #2 Georgia, and then a string of insane finishes against South Carolina, Vanderbilt, and Kentucky, where the Vols came out on the right side every time.

That last one took four overtimes, but it got the Vols to Atlanta for the fifth time in Fulmer's career.  On the other side was LSU, who had lost only twice, in a pair of triple overtime games against Kentucky and Arkansas.  The loss to the Hogs came the week before the SEC Championship, and knocked the Tigers from #1 to #5 in the polls, and all the way to #7 in the BCS.  On December 1, LSU needed a ton of help to get to the National Championship Game.

In the week between the loss to Arkansas and the game in Atlanta, Nebraska made a move for LSU defensive coordinator Bo Pelini and got him.  QB Matt Flynn was banged up and questionable for the SEC title game, meaning Ryan Perrilloux would have to lead the team. 

December 1, 2007 might be the single most insane day of college football in the BCS era.  The major players wouldn't take the stage until the late afternoon, but early in the day the rumors about Les Miles taking the Michigan job turned into something else entirely, thanks to ESPN:

Trying to figure out Tennessee from week to week in 2007 was like throwing darts, so we really didn't know what to expect coming to Atlanta...but when this broke, you knew it couldn't be good news for LSU.  They were already vulnerable.  Now, they would be even more distracted.

So then, live from Atlanta, Les decides he has to straighten this whole thing out:

(Sidenote A:  Les goes to eleven when he plays us)

(Sidenote B:  I was in the men's room at the Georgia World Congress Center when this press conference happened, along with a bunch of LSU fans, and this guy comes running in and says that Miles is staying.  The response from the small sample size of LSU fans in that particular men's room could best be described as indifference.  I think the relationship between LSU fans and Les Miles is the most fascinating fan-coach marriage in the SEC.)

(Sidenote C:  My favorite part, by far, about this day in Atlanta was running into the Georgia fans trying to sell their tickets, and hearing them complain about how they deserved to be playing in this game.  The SEC East isn't the AP Poll.  You didn't get screwed over, you got beat by three touchdowns.) 

So LSU, with all their distractions and their championship hopes and dreams, takes on a bipolar Tennessee team.  I had no idea what we'd get, but what me and the other 60,000+ Tennessee fans in that building did know is that the only thing that might make December 8, 2001 a little bit better was making LSU feel our pain.

The notion that LSU would walk all over the Vols was dispelled on the opening drive.  After seven years of futility with what would come to be known as the wildcat package, and several Vols - from Eric Locke to James Banks before this, to Nu'Keese Richardson after - failing to run it with any consistency, Gerald Jones made it work.  On 3rd and 2 at the LSU 36, Cutcliffe dialed it up and Jones took off for a 20 yard gain.  Two plays later, Erik Ainge made a pass that I'm still not sure wasn't really intercepted, but somehow Chris Brown was standing in the end zone with the football.  7-0 Vols, three minutes in.

LSU would finish with 464 yards of offense on this day, but Chief's defense has rarely been better at bending but not breaking.  On their first two drives, LSU made it to the Tennessee 7 and the Tennessee 8...and came away with field goals both times.  Early in the second quarter, LSU had 4th and 1 at the UT 31 and went for it, but the Vols stonewalled Jacob Hester and took the ball back. 

The Tennessee offense did nothing in the first half after the first drive, even when given good field position:  on consecutive plays midway through the second quarter, Keiland Williams made two terrible decisions and was stopped for a 14 yard loss, and Perrilloux was dropped by human missile Nevin McKenzie.  That gave LSU 3rd and 36 at their own 4 yard line, which became 4th and 36, and gave the Vols the ball near midfield...where the offense again went three and out.  LSU responded by driving to the UT 11...but this time Colt David missed, and somehow Tennessee still had the lead, 7-6 going to the locker room.

You take the good with the bad with John Chavis, and on LSU's opening drive of the third quarter we saw the bad.  I watched the highlights on the 2007 season DVD again this morning, and had almost forgotten what the mustang package looked like...until I saw Perrilloux have all day on 3rd and 16 at the UT 27, and drop one in a hole in coverage to Demetrius Byrd for a touchdown.  13-7, and the LSU fans come to life.

But Tennessee's offense also came out of the locker room hot, and again Gerald Jones was the catalyst:  on 1st and 10 at the LSU 34, Jones ran for 19 yards from the G-Gun, and the Vols had 1st and 10 at the LSU 15.  Tennessee couldn't convert, but sent freshman Daniel Lincoln on for a 30 yard chip shot - Kesling calls it "basically an extra point" on the radio - and Lincoln pushed it wide right.

So here comes LSU again, moving to midfield with a six point lead midway through the third quarter...and it just feels like it's getting ready to be their day. 

Enter Eric Berry.

Trindon Holliday lost the football on a punch-out, and it went straight to the freshman safety, killing the LSU drive.  From there, Ainge converted a 2nd and 12 to Chris Brown for 24 yards, a 2nd and 9 to Josh Briscoe for 13 yards, and then a 3rd and goal at the 6 to Briscoe again for the touchdown.  With three minutes to play in the third quarter, the Vols were back in front, 14-13.

On the first play of LSU's ensuing drive, Berry made a sensational tackle on Early Doucet for a one yard loss on first down, and when Perrilloux started to panic on third down and just threw one up for grabs, Berry was there to pick it off.  The Vols had 1st and 10 at the LSU 37, leading by one, in the final minute of the third quarter.

The Vols got three yards and then called on Daniel Lincoln from 51.  Lincoln has made some big kicks for this university.  But he's missed his share of 'em too, inclduing his second wide right of the day here.  The Tigers get it back, and a field goal will still give them the lead as the game moves to the fourth quarter.  How much more can our defense give us?

They answered immediately with a three and out stop.  When the Vols returned the favor, LSU drove to the UT 46, but a false start penalty made it 3rd and 15.  Holliday ran for 10 yards, giving LSU 4th and 5 at the UT 41 with eleven minutes to play.  Les Miles called for the punt team, and has never looked smarter.

The punt was downed at the 9, and the Vols got to the 14 before facing 3rd and 5 with ten minutes to play.  Ainge went for the quick out, Jonathan Zenon read it all the way, and in an instant had a pick six...and the Tigers had the lead.  Perrilloux ran in for the two point conversion, making it 21-14 with still 9:54 to play.

The Vols responded immediately, driving to the LSU 21 with Ainge hitting 3 of 4 passes for 45 yards.  Tennessee faced 4th and 4 there with 6:30 to play, down a touchdown and with an 0-2 kicker.  Fulmer elected to go for it, and Ainge found Denarius Moore open across the middle...and the ball bounced right off his chest.  LSU takes over.

LSU leaned on Jacob Hester, who ran twice for eight yards, and the Tigers had 3rd and 2.  They went to Hester again, but Tennessee read it and Jerod Mayo made the stop, short of the first down.  Another great stand by the defense gave the ball back to Tennessee, 66 yards away with 4:10 on the clock.

After a first down, the Vols went backward, and had 3rd and 15 at the UT 39 with just over three minutes to play, still with two timeouts.  Tennessee sent Arian Foster out of the backfield, Ainge hit him, and Foster rumbled for 46 yards, all the way to the LSU 15.  When he caught that ball and turned upfield, I thought he had a touchdown.  Still, we were just 15 yards away from one.

And then Ainge, on first down, stared down a receiver and tried to force one...and Darry Beckwith stepped right in front of it.  True to the form of the 2007 season, we experienced every possible emotion in a span of two plays.

LSU needed first downs to ice it.  They got one via Perrilloux, who made some terrible decisions but also some huge runs in this game.  And then Hester finally got free, running for 20 yards and ending the threat.  LSU took knees and escaped, 21-14.

Later that night, Oklahoma beat #1 Missouri by three touchdowns, and unranked Pitt stunned #2 West Virginia.  That put Ohio State in for sure, and the BCS would reward LSU with the other spot in the title game...and they went on and did what SEC teams do to Ohio State.  The 2007 Vols were right there with the eventual National Champions, and let it get away.  When we talk about the declining talent level around these parts, keep in mind that we just did the same thing last year.

Erik Ainge manned up and took the blame, though Fulmer tried not to let him.  I said at the time that as soon as I stopped being mad at him, I'm going to feel for him - on the most important night of his senior season, Ainge helped put us in position to win the SEC Championship...and then threw it away on two terrible decisions.  To his credit, he responded with his best non-overtime statistical performance as a Vol, 25 of 43 for 365 yards and 2 TDs against Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl win.  Perhaps no quarterback at this university has experienced such a roller coaster over the course of his career.

Phillip Fulmer was rewarded with a contract extension that appeared to make him set for life, automatically extending him for winning even eight games.  Fulmer hired Clawson, and the rest is history.  Could it have been different on this night in Atlanta, had Ainge not thrown one or both of those passes, and the Vols instead win their first SEC title (and subsequent BCS bowl game) since 1998?  Would an SEC Championship in '07 have been enough to save Fulmer in '08?

No one knows the answer to that...but it goes to show you the value of every single play in major college football.  How many different outcomes were possible not just in this game, but for the Tennessee program?  If not for those two interceptions, how different are the lives of Erik Ainge, Phillip Fulmer, Dave Clawson, Lane Kiffin, Ryan Mallett, Derek Dooley...the list goes on.

But this is the outcome we got, and it's become the hand we're playing today, three years and two coaches later.  For Gerald Jones, Denarius Moore, and the other seniors on this year's team, they've seen so much change and so much losing...but they also know what it's like to play for a championship.  And I hope all of those experiences help us move forward for something positive this fall.

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