We begin a new summer series today looking back at key moments in Tennessee athletics and imagining a different outcome, asking where the story would have gone from there...
Tennessee's last two appearances in the SEC Championship Game have been played with varying sums of house money. In 2004 Auburn was undefeated and Erik Ainge was out for the year, leaving Rick Clausen's Vols to give a valiant effort before falling short 38-28. In 2007 the Vols had roller coastered their way to a 9-3 finish, ending on a high note with a four overtime triumph in Lexington the week before to secure the Eastern Division. Standing in their way was an LSU team ranked fifth in the AP poll but seventh in the BCS, a triple overtime loss of their own to Arkansas on November 17 dropping them from the top spot in the polls. The Tigers had an argument, but seemed to have too much traffic in their way and then too many distractions: defensive coordinator Bo Pelini was headed to Nebraska, and on the day of the SEC title game it was reported Les Miles would be heading to Michigan, prompting his famous and spontaneous, "Have a great day," press conference.
December 1 would unfold with two critical upsets, as #1 Missouri and #2 West Virginia both lost. But those games weren't completed until after the SEC title game, so there was little certainty about what LSU could obtain with a win in Atlanta. Tennessee fans in Atlanta and throughout Big Orange Country hoped the cracks in LSU's foundation could lead to an upset, and the Vols cashed in on their opening drive for a 7-0 lead. After two LSU field goals both teams came up short repeatedly: each side missed a chip shot field goal and LSU was stopped on 4th-and-1 in Tennessee territory. The Tigers did score a touchdown to open the third quarter, but when Eric Berry recovered a fumble later in the third, Tennessee reclaimed the lead when Erik Ainge found Josh Briscoe on third down from the six yard line. The Vols led 14-13 with three minutes to play in the third quarter.
Ryan Perrilloux, filling in for an injured Matt Flynn at quarterback, was picked off by Berry on the next drive, but Daniel Lincoln missed a 51 yard field goal. Still, the Vol defense turned in a pair of stops, with a great LSU punt leaving the Vols at their own nine yard line, still leading 14-13, with just under 11 minutes to play.
At this point, the question was survival: could the Vols hang on? Could the Tennessee defense, which was so good some weeks and so bad in others throughout the 2007 season, keep LSU off the scoreboard for these last few minutes? The Vols up to this point, other than two missed field goals, had played mistake-free football; as Verne Lundquist points out on the CBS telecast just before a 3rd and 5 snap at the Vol 14, Tennessee had no penalties and no turnovers.
Seconds later, Erik Ainge was intercepted by Jonathan Zenon, who raced back untouched to the end zone for an LSU lead.
The Vols responded, moving to 3rd and 4 at the LSU 21 yard line. An incomplete pass on third down led to a decision to go for it on fourth down with under seven minutes to play. Ainge fired a hair behind Denarius Moore, who still could have caught it for a first down but the ball went off his hands and back to the Tigers. Tennessee got a three and out and the ball back at their own 34 with 4:10 to play. On 2nd and 17, Ainge connected with Arian Foster for a 46 yard gain to the LSU 15 yard line with three minutes to play.
But on the very next play, Ainge went for Gerald Jones and may have never seen linebacker Darry Beckwith, who stepped right in front of it for a second LSU interception in the final ten minutes. The Tigers ran for two first downs, and took home the SEC title.
Ainge wore this loss like a pro, taking responsibility for his throws in the postgame press conference and rebounding with one of the best performances of his career in the Outback Bowl, 25 of 43 for 365 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions.
But what if Ainge didn't fire those two interceptions on this night in Atlanta? What if Tennessee held on to win the 2007 SEC Championship?
Would this have saved Phillip Fulmer in 2008?
There would have been national consequences to a different outcome in Atlanta that night - Ohio State and Virginia Tech would have played for the BCS title, who knows what happens with Les Miles - but the biggest what if for Tennessee involves whether winning the SEC title in 2007 would have been enough for Phillip Fulmer to keep his job in 2008.
The Vols would have gone to New Orleans to play in the Sugar Bowl for the first time since the 1990 season, where we'll assume they would have beaten Hawaii just as Georgia did. This would have given Tennessee its first 11-win season and Top 10 finish since 2001, its first BCS appearance since 1999, and its first SEC Championship since 1998. (You can also wonder if Fulmer might have thought about retirement at this point).
We can what if the 2008 season some other day, but let's assume the year went just the same, with one exception. David Cutcliffe still leaves for Duke, Tennessee still hires Dave Clawson (still, for me, the biggest change that would have saved Fulmer's job), and the 2008 season plays out with the same wins and losses with the exception of the Wyoming game, which I don't think the Vols lose if their head coach isn't sitting at a press conference that week. The 2008 Vols go 6-6, and would have probably gone to either the Music City Bowl vs Boston College or the Liberty Bowl vs East Carolina, games won by 6-6 Vanderbilt and Kentucky teams, respectively.
Would Tennessee have made a move on Fulmer one year after he won an SEC title? I think the answer to this is no. But I also think a sense of dissatisfaction with Fulmer among some would have prevailed despite another SEC title because of the nature of the losses that year (blowouts to Florida and Alabama), streaks that would then continue in 2008. So even if Phillip Fulmer survived 2008 at let's say 7-6 with the bowl game, how much longer would he have lasted?
I do think a Fulmer-led team would have done better than 7-6 in 2009, as Lane Kiffin did in his first season. I'm not sure they beat Georgia like a drum, but I think a couple of Kiffin's losses, especially the early one to UCLA, would have gone the other way. Much of this question would rely on your opinion of how much the Clawfense would or could improve in the future, as it slowly but surely did at Bowling Green.
But even if Fulmer survived 2008 and did better than 7-6 in 2009, unless he was able to turn the Florida and Alabama rivalries around in ways those who have come after him have not, I don't think he would have lasted ultimately. The sense of division in the fanbase and pressure on the athletic department would still be hanging around even despite an SEC title in 2007. And from that standpoint, I think this was always the unfortunate end things were pointing toward. Maybe it could have held off until, say, 2010 or possibly even 2011. But as the rest of the SEC ascended and if Fulmer's recruiting stayed sporadically elite instead of consistently elite, all roads may have led here. The Vols would have been better than 40-47 the last seven years, of this I have no doubt. But would they be championship better after getting there at 9-3 in 2007? I don't know.
The 2007 Vols are still one of my favorite stories just for the sheer twists and turns of their season. Phillip Fulmer is still a Tennessee legend no matter what happened in 2007 or 2008. Erik Ainge remains the last Vol quarterback to lead the Vols to the SEC title game and the third best in school history in a number of career categories.
And through all the twists and turns since 2007, most of them far too steep for our liking, the Vols finally appear set to return to the consistently elite with Butch Jones.