LSU hoping to bounce back, Vols looking to stretch run into title game
The SEC championship was supposed to be little more than an appetizer for LSU.
Now, it's about all the Tigers have left after their national championship hopes were trampled by Darren McFadden and the Arkansas Razorbacks this past Friday in one of those mind-numbing upsets that has epitomized the chaos in college football this season.
One minute, the Tigers were No. 1 and being hailed as the most talented team in the country. The next, they were trying to explain how they could give up 50 points in a three-overtime home loss to an unranked Arkansas team.
Senior tailback Jacob Hester sat in disbelief in the LSU locker room for nearly an hour afterward trying to sort it all out.
"I just kept replaying the game in my mind," he said.
Later that weekend, Hester sought refuge in his hometown of Shreveport, La. The idea was to take a brief sabbatical from football. Everywhere he went, though, that crushing 50-48 loss reverberated.
"It seemed like everybody wanted to talk about football," he lamented. "I never could really get away from it. It's something that devastated a lot of people and a lot of fans. It's hard to get that out of your mind but you've got to."
Whereas LSU fully expected to be in Atlanta on Saturday, albeit under different circumstances, back in October nobody expected Tennessee to as much as sniff the SEC championship game.
That is, nobody outside of the Vols' locker room and possibly Phillip Fulmer's household -- and even that might be debatable. After all, this is the same team that gave up more points (246) than it scored (243) this season in SEC games and lost by 39 points to Florida and 24 points to Alabama. But it's also the same team that found a way to rally around its embattled coach and play its best football when the criticism of Fulmer reached a boiling point.
Now, thanks to a little bit of luck, a lot of perseverance and a knack for winning the close ones, the Vols head to Atlanta on the heels of a five-game winning streak and believing that destiny is on their side.
"This team has shown character and heart, and it starts with Coach Fulmer and his staff," said junior linebacker Jerod Mayo, who's racked up 61 tackles during the Vols' five-game winning streak. "They've been criticized all year from the media, from the fans and things like that. We've seen how they've reacted and persevered through all of the talk, and it just trickles down to the players on the field."
While this isn't the matchup anybody would have predicted a month ago, it's also not the matchup many around the college football world were hoping to see in the SEC title game. Georgia has soared to No. 4 in the latest BCS standings and is playing as well as anybody right now after double-digit wins the last month over Florida and Auburn.
But the Bulldogs' undoing was a 35-14 pummeling by the Vols back on Oct. 6, giving the head-to-head tiebreaker to Tennessee.
The Vols' players have almost reveled in all the talk about Georgia this week and the Bulldogs' not being a part of the SEC championship proceedings.
"It's ridiculous for Georgia to even be in this conversation. It's just sour grapes by them," senior linebacker Ryan Karl said. "They had an opportunity just like we did, and we wanted it more that day. If they had beaten us, they wouldn't have to worry about being at home and not getting a chance to play for the [SEC] title.
"That's OK, though. We play better when we're the underdog and relish the opportunity to prove people wrong."
Senior tight end Chris Brown said the Vols are right where they deserve to be.
"We know that we're in the SEC championship for a reason," Brown said. "We beat the teams we needed to beat at the times we needed to beat them. People can say what they want to say, but it's all about us and we're focusing on us right now."
For the Tigers, it's all about regaining their swagger from earlier in the season.
At full strength and full focus, there's not a better team in the SEC. But where the Tigers are emotionally right now remains to be seen.
"We'll just have to clear our minds of what happened last week," LSU quarterback Matt Flynn said. "It's going to be tough. Obviously, one of our big goals at the beginning of the season has taken a very big shot. We've got to refocus and realize that we've got this big game for the SEC championship and it's a very big deal."
LSU coach Les Miles bristles at the notion that the Tigers may be a tad splintered right now. His name remains in the middle of the Michigan head coaching search, and Miles is supposed to meet with the Wolverines next week. Michigan athletic director Bill Martin has already received permission through LSU to speak with Miles about the job.
And earlier this week, LSU defensive coordinator Bo Pelini interviewed with Nebraska for the Cornhuskers' head coaching vacancy.
It's also not the healthiest the Tigers have been. Star defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey, who battled a knee injury earlier in the season, has been plagued by back spasms the last few weeks and isn't close to 100 percent. Running back/return specialist Trindon Holliday missed the Arkansas game because of an ankle sprain, but expects to be back for the SEC championship game.
The most serious concern revolves around Flynn, who injured his throwing shoulder against Arkansas and was limited in practice earlier this week. Flynn has played through injuries most of the year, but backup Ryan Perrilloux could see his role greatly increase in this game.
"I'm not really sure right now what's going to happen," Flynn said earlier this week when asked about the seriousness of his shoulder injury.
Both teams have struggled to put two halves together. The Vols lost big first-half leads against South Carolina and Kentucky and had to rally from a 15-point deficit in the fourth quarter to nip Vanderbilt.
The Tigers won in the final seconds against Auburn and Alabama before losing in three overtimes against Arkansas. After starting the season with dominating victories against Mississippi State and Virginia Tech, nothing has been easy for LSU.
"I don't know what it is," Flynn said. "It seems like we've gotten every team's best shot."
Even with the hangover from the Arkansas loss lingering, it will probably take Tennessee's best shot -- and then some -- to send the Tigers to their second straight defeat. They haven't lost two in a row since the 2002 season (Nick Saban's third year in Baton Rouge) when they dropped the regular-season finale to Arkansas and then lost to Texas in the Cotton Bowl.
Tennessee, on the other hand, hasn't won an SEC title since its 1998 national championship season, a drought that has cost Fulmer dearly in the eyes of many of the Big Orange fans.
The Vols are the last team in the SEC to win back-to-back titles (1997 and 1998), but five other teams in the league have won titles since their last one.
"Our goal was not just to get here," Karl said. "We want to win. How we fought through the adversity we had this season it shows the fight that this team has."
Chris Low is a college football writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Chris at email@example.com.
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