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The 50 Best Games of the Fulmer Era - #21: Backs to the Wall, One More Time

In the three years that I've been blogging, without a doubt the most enjoyable week to write about surrounded the 2007 Georgia game.  Coming in, the Vols were unranked and only noteworthy for giving up 45 points in a season opening loss at Cal, then eating the worst loss of the Fulmer Era in a 59-20 beatdown at Florida.  The nature of these two blowout losses, combined with the extraordinarily young defense that had allowed 104 points in them, had erased any goodwill that Fulmer had built up during the hot start the year before...which had helped cool the hot seat from 2005.

So in the first week of October 2007, Vol fans had every reason to believe that the program was looking at a second disastrous season in three years...and while we'd eventually find our way back to this point one year later, in 2007 Fulmer found his back against the wall...and came out alive, one last time.

The Gators, who looked invincible against Tennessee behind eventual Heisman winner Tim Tebow, maybe you've heard of him, stumbled against Auburn for a second consecutive year.  The Vols were only 2-2 and had only beaten Southern Miss and Arkansas State, but both the math and the odds suggested that Tennessee was still alive.  On October 6, the Vols would host Georgia, and Florida would travel to LSU, with Tennessee and the Tigers both the favorites.  If Vegas was right, no matter how bad the Vols' season had looked to that point, Tennessee would walk out of the first Saturday of October atop the SEC Eastern Division.  If Vegas was wrong, Phillip Fulmer may not have survived.

It was the greatest risk/reward scenario in one game that I've ever seen:  lose, and your coach is probably done and so is your season.  Win, and if #1 LSU can hold serve at home later that night, you're in first place and control of your own destiny.  The middle ground nonexistent, the 2007 edition of Tennessee and Georgia was going to be one of the most important games of Phillip Fulmer's career, win or lose.

And like most of the 2007 season, what actually happened on that October Saturday in Knoxville, absolutely no one saw coming...

21. 2007:  Tennessee 35 - #12 Georgia 14 (Knoxville)

This game is also a great study in the roller coaster nature of the modern SEC.  The year before, Georgia started 5-0 and had the number one defense in the nation when the Vols came to Athens.  The Dawgs had won five of the last six in this series, which had been completely dominated by the Vols throughout the 90s but appeared to have been turned on its head.

Then Tennessee erased a 24-7 hole in a 51-33 win.

From that point, Georgia went into a tailspin.  They lost to Vanderbilt the very next week.  They'd later lose to Kentucky after losing to Florida (again).  The Dawgs did find a couple nice wins to finish 9-4 and ranked #23, but when Georgia lost at South Carolina in the second week of the 2007 season, Dawg fans came to a frustrating realization:  Georgia had lost five straight games against the SEC East, one to each of the other teams in the division. 

Mark Richt wasn't walking the same plank as Phillip Fulmer, but his seat was warmer than it's ever been in Athens.  But the Dawgs won a dramatic overtime game at Alabama (now forever known as The "What is Britney doing with her life?" Game), then blew out Ole Miss to get back to #12 in the polls. 

The Vols appeared to be on the edge of the plank, and a Georgia win appeared to be just the thing to both push Fulmer over the edge, and to erase any notion that Richt and the Dawgs were falling behind.

Instead, Fulmer pulled a Luke Skywalker - metaphorically, of course - flipping from the edge of the plank back to solid ground, and instead knocking Georgia's championship aspirations into the pit...though we didn't know it yet.

From the opening kickoff, there were signs.  Britton Colquitt returned from a leg injury to boot the opening kickoff into the end zone, to a roar of approval from the crowd.  When the Vol defense held Georgia to three and out, the Tennessee offense went methodical:  12 plays, 81 yards, almost exclusively on the ground.  Arian Foster capped it off with a nine yard touchdown run, and the Vols led 7-0.

The teams traded punts before the Vol defense forced another three and out, got it back and moved to midfield.  On the first play of the second quarter, the Vols - from a three tight end package - ran an end around to Lucas Taylor, who stopped, got a crucial half-block from Erik Ainge, and then fired downfield to a wide open LaMarcus Coker.  The Vols led 14-0.

The Vols smelled blood.  And on the next drive, they went for the kill:  Ellix Wilson went untouched to block a punt (UT's second blocked punt in two years against the Dawgs).  The offense grinded it again, finishing with a Montario Hardesty touchdown run...and with 9:30 left in the first half, the Vols led 21-0.

Aside from my years in the student section, I've always sat in section Z11, which is sometimes uncomfortably close to the visiting allotment.  We said this game was a testament to the roller coaster, and there's no better example than this:  when Hardesty scored to put the Vols up 21-0, I watched a noticeable number of Georgia fans head for the exits.  This would be six straight L's against the SEC East, and they were cussing Mark Richt every step towards the gates.

Two months later, these were the same fans who argued that Georgia should be playing for the National Championship.

But before that, Tennessee still had some punishment to dish out.

Another Georgia three and out (finished by Robert Ayers and JT Mapu putting Matt Stafford in the fetal position) led to a strike from Erik Ainge to Denarius Moore.  The Vols relied on the run to pound the Dawgs and control the clock, but when the Vols did pass Ainge was laser-efficient:  17 of 22 for 165 yards.  Three plays later, the Vols had 3rd and 1, and again went to a different look, this time going to the power-I set.  They faked Chris Brown on a dive over the top, allowing Arian Foster to get the corner and then burn Asher Allen to the end zone, 30 yards for the score.  Tennessee was up 28-0, and the rout was on.

Another Georgia three and out led to this fun stat:  at this point, the Vols had 14 first downs and had scored touchdowns on three consecutive drives.  Georgia had six drives total:  one first down, five three and outs, one blocked punt.

The defense continued to grow up in the second half, though we must credit Demiko Goodman for a sensational catch on a fade pattern to make it 28-7 in the third quarter. 

But then Tennessee shut the door:  13 plays, 65 yards, 7:10 off the clock.  On 3rd and 11 at midfield, Georgia jammed every receiver and blitzed a safety.  Ainge calmly found Lucas Taylor over the middle for ten, Fulmer elected to go for it on 4th and 1 at the Georgia 40, and Arian Foster responded with a slashing six yard run.

When Foster punched it in for his third touchdown of the game, the lead was 35-7, and Georgia was done.  In fact, their final score came only after a Marsalous Johnson interception was ridiculously overturned on a pass interference call that should've gone the other way.  Jonathan Hefney's interception of Matthew Stafford on the next drive was the capper.

Joy swept through Neyland Stadium like we hadn't seen since the season opener the year before against Cal.  Questions about the defense against Georgia's strong running game and Stafford's arm were answered:  69 yards combined for Moreno, Lumpkin and Brown, and only 243 total on the day for Georgia's offense.  Meanwhile, if you like balance, how about this:  190 on the ground, 221 in the air for the Vols.

Later that evening, the joy was made complete:  LSU went 5-for-5 on 4th down and held off Florida, putting Tennessee in first place in the SEC East.  At the crossroads of the season and his own career, Fulmer came out on top one last time.

The insanity would continue for the rest of the season:  Tennessee was blown out by Alabama two weeks later, putting Florida back in control.  Then Georgia stunned the Gators the following week, and would continue to roll for the remainder of the season.  But needing only one more Tennessee loss, they watched the Vols survive last-second affairs with South Carolina, Vanderbilt and finally Kentucky.  The Dawgs would finish the season as the second best team in the country...but the Vols would win the SEC East.

In the moment:

Video highlights.  Enjoy: