Not long ago, the idea that Phil Fulmer would be ranked seventh among the SEC coaches by a group of educated conference fans would have been laughable. In 1998, after all, he won the SEC and national titles.
But in the nine seasons since then, the Vols have returned to the SEC Championship Game just three times -- hardly impressive by Tennessee standards -- and have won fewer than 10 games five times. These wouldn't be alarming numbers in Columbia or Lexington or Fayetteville, but in Knoxville, that kind of performance makes one's seat perpetually warm.
Somehow, Fulmer has survived, even keeping his job in the 5-6 disaster that was the 2005 season. You can't help but wonder, though, how long the Great Pumpkin can remain in his patch without hoisting some hardware.
O-line. The only member of this squad not listed as a "returning starter" by some is Jacques McClendon, started the last six games last year. And what a season 2007 was. The line allowed four sacks -- all year. That's an average of 0.29 a game, despite the fact that Tennessee attempted 534 passes. The next-fewest number of sacks allowed in the nation was 10, by a Rutgers team that passed the ball 378 times. The 4.2 ypc average in the rushing game isn't shabby, either. ADVANTAGE: TENNESSEE
Quarterback. Jonathan Crompton takes over for Erik Ainge, who finishes his career as one of the most up-and-down signal-callers this side of Columbia. But Ainge, as the sportscaster-speak goes, "just won," and the same cannot so far be said for Crompton. He was 0-2 in a pair of starts in 2006, though those games came against LSU and Darren McFadden University Arkansas, so grading on a curve might be fair. Last year, Crompton was 7-of-12 with a touchdown and 2 INTs. ADVANTAGE: PUSH
Wide receivers. Another talented part of the offense, but one whose success was closely tied to Ainge. How well Lucas Taylor and Co. do with Crompton -- after all, the three top receivers return -- could determine the course of the 2008 campaign. The Vols, though, have far more depth than the Gamecocks. ADVANTAGE: TENNESSEE
Running backs. Arian Foster, coming off a 1,193-yard, 12-TD year, is a first-team All-SEC selection. With his line back in front of him, there shouldn't be many questions about whether he can match last year's production. Should something happen to him -- always a risk late in the year for a running back -- his backup, Montario Hardesty, is competent enough to keep the ground game working. ADVANTAGE: TENNESSEE
Defensive line. Tennessee didn't do a particularly good job of stopping the run (164.6 ypg) or pressuring the passer (24 sacks) last year. This year, they lose both DE starters -- not exactly a shot in the arm to your pass rush, though Robert Ayers did lead the team with four sacks in 2007. ADVANTAGE: PUSH
Linebackers. Rico McCoy returns after having 106 tackles last season, but he is the lone veteran. Ellix Wilson did have three sacks and 5 TFL in 2007. ADVANTAGE: SOUTH CAROLINA
Secondary. Hampered by the aforementioned lack of an effective rush, the Vols ranked 66th in pass efficiency defense, holding opponents to a 126.74 QB rating and allowing 238.6 ypg through the air. Eric Berry did pick off five passes and come in fourth on the team with 86 tackles. Jonathan Hefney is gone; none of the returning starters aside from Berry have done much to merit mentioning. ADVANTAGE: SOUTH CAROLINA
The kickin' Colquitts have not gone away -- well, unless you count Britton's five-game suspension, which will affect the South Carolina game not at all. He averaged 41.6 yards punting in 2007, though he had just three touchbacks on 57 kickoffs. Daniel Lincoln was 21-of-29 on FGs, though the missed kicks were across the board (9-of-11 from 20-29, 5-of-6 from 30-39, 7-of-10 from 40-49, 0-of-2 from 50+).
The Vols were the best in the conference on kickoff returns with a 24.4 yard average, though LaMarcus Coker's 26.7 yard average is gone. ADVANTAGE: TENNESSEE
Fulmer's fall has taken him even further from Spurrier, whom he has always trailed. While South Carolina is 1-2 against Tennessee in the Spurrier Era, it's fair to say that Spurrier outcoached Fulmer in at least two of the three games. Need we even mention Spurrier's record against Fulmer while HBC was at Florida. ADVANTAGE: SOUTH CAROLINA
On paper, Tennessee looks like the better team. But with many of this year's key pieces in place, it took a bizarre series of events at the end of last year's game for the Vols to win. Since then, they've lost both Erik Ainge and OC David Cutcliffe. But last year's game was par for the course -- South Carolina and Tennessee almost always fight to a draw, with the Vols usually getting the win in the end. This year, the draw part is likely to be the same. Here's hoping the outcome is different. The easy way out, which C&F contemplated, would be to go with a "PUSH." But I'll stick with what I said several weeks ago. PROBABLE WIN
THE REST OF THEIR SEASON
Wit a starting slate of at UCLA, UAB, Florida and at Auburn, it's not hard to see the Vols starting 1-3, though 2-2 is just as likely. After a gimme against Northern Illinois, it just gets harder: at Georgia, Mississippi State, Alabama and at South Carolina. Worst-case scenario could see the Vols 3-6 just in time for Wyoming, at Vanderbilt and Kentucky to give the Vols a boost. So a .500 season is possible, but another winning season is likley. 7-5