Life on the Edge

Phillip Fulmer

A couple of close losses has turned a potential 3-1 start for Tennessee into a 1-3 beginning and uphill climb ahead, but this situation isn't so surprising, in fact, it was almost predictable.

Living on the edge has largely been a way of life for the Vols the last couple of seasons thanks to big wins in close contests. In 2007 Tennessee needed a fortuitous fumble and overtime to overcome South Carolina in Knoxville 27-24. It took four overtimes to subdue Kentucky in Lexington, 52-50. The week before UT survived a 25-24 scare against Vanderbilt before prevailing.

The situation was similar during 2006 when the Vols came out on top of Air Force by 1 point, Alabama by 3, Kentucky by 5, South Carolina by 7 and Wisconsin by 4. That's five wins by an average of four points per decision. The Vols also lost a pair of tight decisions that year — 21-20 to Florida and 28-24 LSU both which went on to win national titles in 2006 and 2007, respectively.

Over those seasons Tennessee won a total of eight games decided by a combined 26 points or just over a field goal average per victory. The number of close wins allowed the Vols to compile a combine mark of 19-8 and may have given some false positives about the state of the program.

Throw in the 2005 "perfect storm" season in which the Vols went 5-6 and you get a more realistic perception on just how much they have struggled to maintain the program's stature in an ever changing landscape of college football. That season Tennessee had six games decided by a touchdown or less and won three of them including an overtime win at LSU. But after winning two of their first three games by narrow margins the Vols lost by 1 point to South Carolina, 3 points to Alabama and 4 points to Vanderbilt. They beat Memphis the week before 20-16.

The 2004 season stands alone for close contests as the Vols won six games by six points or less, while only losing one close game to Notre Dame by a count of 17-13. The run of narrow inncluded victories over Florida by 2 points, Georgia by 5 points, Mississippi by 4 points, Alabama by four points, Vanderbilt by 5 and Kentucky by 6.

Over the four seasons prior to 2008, Tennessee has won 18 games by a touchdown or less which means over half of their 34 total victories during a span that the Vols compiled a 34-18 record went down to the wire. That includes five overtime times. If just half of those games had titled the other way UT's combined record would have been 25-27 and 26-30 when tacking on this year's results.

If you compare those seasons to Fulmer's first seven seasons as Bull of The Hill, he compiled a record of 72-14 and in those seven seasons only 11 of UT's 72 victories was by seven points or less. That's a remarkable difference and it's highly revealing.

It suggests the Vols no longer have the talent, or depth needed to dominate opponents. The game in the SEC has caught up to and in most respects passed up UT which was still running the power-I long after lacking the personnel to run it effectively. Even the concession to go with a new scheme this season has to this point come off as a warmed over power-I with even less flexibility and little of the west coast principles originally touted when Dave Clawson was hired as coordinator.

To appreciate dominance in victory look at Fulmer's first full season as head coach in 1993. That year the Vols outscored their opponents by an average of 43 to 14 for a difference of 29 points per game. The closest win the Vols had that entire season was 28-14 at Arkansas. In their 10 wins that season the Vols outscored opponents better than four to one 437 to 103.

It's a good thing when a team can win close games, but when you spend too much time out there on the edge of oblivion the pendulum will invariably swing back the other way and those two point wins suddenly become two-point losses and 3-1 marks slip to 1-3.

InsideTennessee.com Recommended Stories