Fulmer's firing adds twist to The Streak

ccosby@herald-leader.comNovember 25, 2008 

  • Saturday

    Kentucky at Tennessee

    When: 6:30 p.m. TV: ESPN2

    Series: Tennessee leads 71-23-9

    Last season: Tennessee won 52-50 (4OT)

    Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1

For the past several seasons, the Kentucky-Tennessee football game has been all about The Streak.

But there are other story lines surrounding this year's UK-UT game besides the Vols' 23 consecutive victories over Kentucky, the longest such streak in the nation.

The Wildcats' cause won't be helped because the game marks the end of the Phillip Fulmer era. That probably means a packed Neyland Stadium and a Tennessee team that will be fired up to send its coach out a winner.

"It's a little bit of a concern because you know those guys are going to play hard," said UK junior running back Alfonso Smith. "It's going to be emotional. We have to match their intensity and go out there and play hard with them."

Plus, Tennessee is coming off perhaps its most impressive win of the season, a 20-10 victory over Vanderbilt that was more dominant than the final score indicated. It was the same Vandy team that smacked the Wildcats in the head the week before in building a 24-7 lead before holding on for a 31-24 win.

"It's obvious they haven't packed it in," UK Coach Rich Brooks said. "From everything I've seen and read and heard, this group of players has a lot of affection for Coach Fulmer, and I'm sure they'd like for his last game to be a positive one."

Fulmer said during his weekly teleconference Sunday that he is more focused on beating Kentucky than on riding off into the sunset.

"I have a lot of great memories and great experiences," he said. "But I want to concentrate on this game and this team and get one more win out of this thing, and then we'll have lots of time to reflect perhaps."

Tennessee was in shambles shortly after Fulmer's resignation was announced. Many players expressed frustration with how the situation was handled, and then the Vols went out and laid an egg in a 13-7 loss to Wyoming later that week.

But all the controversy simmered down during Tennessee's open date, and the Vols came back with a physically dominating performance against the Commodores. Vanderbilt quarterback Chris Nickson, who has had perhaps the two best games of his career against UK, was held to minus-11 yards of offense and was sacked three times by Tennessee.

"We've gotten past the emotional things, I think," Fulmer said. "I'm hopeful they'll just be determined to win this football game to finish up the season on a positive note."

Tennessee's unsettled quarterback situation also will pose problems for UK.

Junior Jonathan Crompton started against Vandy, his first start since a 14-12 loss at Auburn on Sept. 27. Redshirt freshman B.J. Coleman also saw early action before turning the offense back to Crompton late in the game.

Wide receiver Gerald Jones and safety Eric Berry also took snaps at quarterback in Tennessee's version of the en vogue "Wildcat" offense. Fulmer said he isn't sure who will start at quarterback against Kentucky.

"It's a little bit of a quandary," Brooks said. "Do we prepare for what we saw against Vanderbilt or the offense they had been running previously?"

Tennessee threw just nine passes for 21 yards against Vandy and did not attempt a pass in the fourth quarter. But Brooks said that's more a sign of Tennessee's commitment to physical football than incompetence at quarterback.

"Tennessee came in and played a very physical game on both sides of the ball," Brooks said. "They made up their mind that they were going to line up and whip Vanderbilt physically, and they did a pretty good job of that.

"They threw nine passes for 21 yards and still were able to win. ... You don't see that too often. I would expect them to come out and try and do something similar against us, but with an enhanced passing game."

While Tennessee's season has been a disappointment, Brooks said his team needs the win to gain some positive momentum heading toward a bowl game. UK has dropped five of its last seven games after a 4-0 start.

"I'm disappointed we haven't accomplished more and won more games," Brooks said. "The fact that this year, particularly with this being a transition year, we were in position to do some things is significant. It's also significant to how close we are to the pecking order and how close we are to making a bigger dent in the SEC than where we were.

"We have gotten to the point where a .500 season is not accepted. You don't jump up and down about it and get all excited. To me, that's a sign of progress."

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