Spend more than five minutes braving the Tennessee Volunteer message boards and you're bound to find The Argument. It's generally initiated by a poster calling himself something like FIREFULMERNOWIMEANNOW!!, who posts a thousand words chronicling in all caps the TEN YEAR DEMISE OF THE PROGRAM. If you redact the obscenity and fat jokes, what's left is this: Tennessee's winning percentage has been declining over the past decade.
That's mostly true. Over the last nine seasons, the Vols have lost three, four, two, five, three, three, six (during The Season of Which We Do Not Speak), four, and four games. But your take on those numbers of course depends on whether you tend to view the proverbial glass as half full or half empty (and whether it contains water or vodka). Defenders of coach Fulmer most often further The Argument by countering that the generally downward trend is peppered with peaks. To these folks, the fact that Tennessee came within one game of playing in the national championship in 2001 and won the SEC East in both 2004 and 2007 means that the Vols are still competitive. The Argument continues on and on ad nauseum until somebody is called a Nazi and the administrator closes the thread and calls Homeland Security.
What happens, though, if the peaks disappear? The stories of 2001, 2004, and 2007 all share a common chapter: forlorn Tennessee somehow beats a rival as a double-digit underdog and saves the season. In 2001, it was Travis Stephens running all over the Florida Gators, an 18-point favorite. In 2004, it was a reeling Tennessee team upsetting the Georgia Bulldogs, who had been absolutely cruising. In 2007, with the team essentially down for the count, Fulmer furiously pounded the mat and willed his team to its wobbly feet to administer a second consecutive whoopin' against the Dawgs, who were again heavily favored to win. Each of those games paved the way to a Tennessee appearance in Atlanta and an anomalous peak on the trendline.
Digging an early grave and somehow climbing out of it by beating a heavily favored rival just before the rigor mortis sets in has become one of the defining characteristics of the Tennessee football program. This tendency toward reanimation when it appears that all is lost is the primary reason friends of The Papa have those nice peaks to point to when defending their coach.
This year, the Georgia game presents more than just a crossroads for the season. It is a potential tipping point for the Fulmer Era. If Fulmer works his magic yet again this Saturday in Athens as a 13-point underdog to rival Georgia, he, his team, and The Argument will survive for another week. If he loses, though, he may lose more than an opportunity to turn this season around. He may in fact deprive his supporters of their last means of defending him from his critics.