Resilient Vols, Fulmer reach SEC title game
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Phillip Fulmer has had better teams, more talented teams and more decorated teams.
He's never had a more resilient team, and for that matter, a more schizophrenic team.
"What a way to make a living, huh?" Fulmer huffed Saturday evening after riding out one of the wildest roller-coaster rides of his 16-year head coaching career at Tennessee.
Not just this game, either. The Vols' entire season has been one that even Hollywood wouldn't dare touch.
Too hokey. Too unbelievable. Too many twists and turns.
This latest jaw-dropper took four overtimes and nearly five hours, but in vintage fashion, Tennessee found a way to stave off Kentucky 52-50 for a 23rd consecutive time and earned the most improbable of trips to the SEC championship game.
"Our team has some shortcomings in some areas, but heart and fight's not one of them," said Fulmer, whose Vols have won five straight and eight of their past nine games.
Really, though, who saw this coming back in September, even as recently as October? Some of Fulmer's closest confidants wouldn't have given the Vols a prayer of making it to Atlanta as they limped off the field at Bryant-Denny Stadium five weeks ago after being wasted 41-17 by Alabama.
Rewind to a month before that meltdown, and Florida pinned a humiliating 59-20 beating on the Vols -- their worst loss in a quarter-century.
At that point, it wasn't a case of whether or not Fulmer could get the Vols back into contention in the SEC East race. It was more a question of whether or not he could keep his job, as the howling among fans had reached unprecedented levels on his watch in Knoxville.
"Let me tell you something about the head football coach at the University of Tennessee," said offensive coordinator and longtime colleague David Cutcliffe, his eyes blazing with conviction.
"He's the most resilient person in Knoxville, in the state of Tennessee and maybe the country. He never wavered. He never panicked. He stayed strong. Nobody was giving him a chance, and he was attacked.
"The coaches followed his lead, and the players followed his lead, and that's why we're here."
And now, with SEC West champion LSU waiting next Saturday in the Georgia Dome, Fulmer gets a chance to do something he hasn't done since the 1998 national championship season: win an SEC title.
"This is as gratifying [a season as I've had], just being around the players and the coaches, and the fight that they have and the attitude that they have on a daily basis," said Fulmer, who is making his fifth trip to the SEC championship game in the past 11 years.
Clearly, this is a team that has thrived on being left for dead, and to some degree, all the criticism that was directed at Fulmer and his staff.
"We've been feeding off the fact that no one's giving us a chance to win," said Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge, who tied an SEC record with seven touchdown passes. "We were the underdog again today. I can't tell you how many times we've been the underdog this year when we felt like we shouldn't have been. Nobody's giving us a shot. Even our own people sometimes have counted us out."
There's no "sometimes" to it, according to tailback Arian Foster.
"No one gives us a shot, including our own people," said Foster, who rushed for 118 yards and caught nine passes for 98 yards. "The backbone of this team has been our heart, and that's the kind of mind-set coach Fulmer sets in the locker room. He preaches that to us. We'll get out of it what we can, and we'll take it however we can get it."
For Fulmer, that also means some added job security, which, in the dog-eat-dog world of the SEC, is always a nice thing. Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton indicated after the game Saturday that Fulmer can expect some combination of a raise and/or extension.
Hamilton said he "plans on taking care" of Fulmer and reiterated how proud he is to have the SEC's dean of coaches at Tennessee.
It was the kind of public support Fulmer loyalists have been lobbying for, especially during some of the darkest hours this season.
John Thornton, one of Tennessee's most prominent boosters, a close friend of Fulmer and a former UT board of trustees member, sent a letter to Hamilton in recent weeks scolding him for not showing more public support for Fulmer. Thornton maintained in the letter that Hamilton actually had fostered some of the negativity that gripped the program, hurting recruiting by not coming out and making a public show of support for Fulmer.
Of course, given the way this team has seemingly feasted on negativity, Tennessee fans might want to pour it on thicker than ever this week.
"Tell everybody to pick us as a 30-point underdog," defensive end Robert Ayers bellowed as he walked through the corridors under Commonwealth Stadium. "We don't have a chance against LSU. Please, pick us to lose by at least 30."
The truth is that Tennessee all but lost the game three, four, maybe even five times Saturday. That was after leading 24-7 at the half and 31-14 in the final minutes of the third quarter.
Only then could the Vols celebrate.
"It wasn't perfect by any means on either side, but that's kind of the story of this season for us," said Ainge, who passed for a career-high 397 yards. "When we need it, we get it."
And who says you don't have to be a little lucky, maybe even a lot lucky?
In addition to being one of the country's most resilient coaches, Fulmer has been equally adept with his field goal defense this season. South Carolina's Ryan Succop missed in overtime, and Vanderbilt's Bryant Hahnfeldt missed in the final seconds last week.
Then on Saturday, Kentucky's Lones Seiber (a Knoxville kid who had committed to the Vols at one point) lined up to win it for the Wildcats from 34 yards away in the second overtime. But Dan Williams, one of Tennessee's squattiest defensive tackles, burst through to block the field goal and give the Vols' their ninth life.
"Coach [Dan] Brooks told us that he'd been kicking it low all game," Williams said. "We called 'desperation block.' I jumped up, and it just so happens that it hit me in the facemask."
That was only a fraction of the drama. Woodson, who had 352 of his 430 passing yards after halftime, inexplicably dropped a shotgun snap on the 1-yard line at the end of regulation. Having to hurry, he threw wide to an open Keenan Burton in the back of the end zone with a second remaining. The Wildcats were forced to kick the short field goal and head into overtime.
On the Vols' winning touchdown and two-point conversion in the fourth overtime, they had to start from the 40 instead of the 25. That's because Foster was whistled for a 15-yard unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty for slinging the football when he was stopped on the previous two-point play.
It didn't matter, though. Quintin Hancock -- running the wrong route, no less -- popped wide open down the seam on the first play and took an Ainge pass 40 yards for the touchdown. On the conversion, Ainge stood in against the rush and delivered a strike to Austin Rogers.
"I think we've earned everything we've gotten," Fulmer said. "I appreciate the good Lord for anything he wants to pass along our way, but we've worked really hard to get where we are.
"And we have been blessed."
Pretty resilient, too.
Chris Low is a college football writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Chris at firstname.lastname@example.org.