Tennessee is now, officially, a John Grisham novel come to life.
Phil Fulmer made sure of that by skipping the SEC media days because he was afraid of a grand-standing, loud, pompous Southern lawyer. He followed that with caustic remarks attacking said lawyer and media which dared intimate he might have been chicken for not showing up.
|1. Georgia||1. LSU|
|2. Florida||2. Auburn|
|3. Tennessee||3. Arkansas|
|4. Kentucky||4. Miss. St.|
|5. S. Carolina||5. Ole Miss|
|6. Vanderbilt||6. Alabama|
|Off. Player of Year:|
|Chris Leak, Florida|
|Def. Player of Year:|
|Marcus Spears, LSU|
|Coach of the Year:|
|Sylvester Croom, Miss. State|
Get over yourself Phil. If there is a place where you need a thick skin it's in the Southeastern Conference. If it's not quarterbacks having their bones crunched, it's fans and media attacking coaches' decisions on a week-to-week basis.
Fulmer's July conduct might have been the next tangible sign the program is in decline. Decline, though, is defined this way: Since winning the national championship in 1998, the Vols are a spectacular 46-17. Fulmer is one of the winningest coaches of all-time (113-28).
But you have to remember the standard set in the SEC. Vanderbilt hasn't been able to sniff so much as a low-level bowl game since 1982 playing in the SEC. Ron Zook probably felt like he was being run out of town at times despite a two-year record that includes consecutive victories over Georgia, one over Tennessee and the lone loss dealt to co-national champ LSU last season.
The Vols haven't exactly stunk up the joint, but they have lost some of their identity. They are only 5-5 against teams from other BCS leagues since 1998. Fulmer's preferred smash-mouth running attack has lost its way. Last year's average of 138 rushing yards per game was almost a third fewer than the 1998 champions averaged (204).
That average was the lowest since 1996 (125.8) and the second lowest since 1964 (83.9).
How the offense has lost its way is a quandary. Casey Clausen was a serviceable, if not spectacular, quarterback. At his best, Cedric Houston is one of the top backs in the country. Fulmer is always able to land giant offensive linemen (see 315-pound Michael Munoz).
The story is not who is telling on who in the SEC, it's what has happened to the Vols. They are almost a consensus third-place pick in the SEC East. What makes a return to prominence so hard is Fulmer must find a new quarterback while getting that running game going.
The SEC media days fiasco is over. The lawsuit is frivolous. And the SEC has instituted protocol for schools to properly turn each other in. Things have gotten messy in the past. The only reason Fulmer's role in the Alabama investigation was revealed was because it came out in court.
"The problems are part of the passion, the loyalty, the intensity, the importance of athletics in the Southeast," SEC commissioner Mike Slive said. "It's historical, it's sociological, it's cultural. I wouldn't trade that for a league that doesn't have it and no problems. I wouldn't want to be any place else."
1. Georgia: The Dawgs are deeper at all positions than any team in the country. The LSU game Oct. 2 could determine the division and the league. Sure, Florida will probably beat Georgia again, but it won't matter if the Dawgs go 12-1.
2. Florida: All that recruiting pays off. Chris Leak contends for the Heisman. Nine victories are not out of the question.
3. Tennessee: Houston needs a huge year to re-establish Tennessee's swagger.
4. Kentucky: Rich Brooks makes big gains in his second year. We know the probation is taking hold, but offensive coordinator Ron Hudson is underrated. Shane Boyd is his kind of quarterback.
5. South Carolina: This is a program in decline. Cock-A-Doodle Lou fired four assistants and ripped play-calling duties from his son Skip. Who knows where this program is headed except Kentucky on Oct. 16, which will be the difference between the Cocks finishing fourth and fifth.
6. Vanderbilt: The 'Dores are going to be serviceable with 20 starters back. Vandy will beat someone it shouldn't. Bobby Johnson will double last year's win total (two) and become a candidate for SEC coach of the year.
1. LSU: The Tigers could get to the SEC title game on their defense alone. Best storyline: If quarterback Marcus Randall holds onto the job with freshman JaMarcus Russell nipping at his heels.
2. Auburn: Now that no one expects anything from the Tigers, Cadillac Williams will win the Heisman, Tommy Tuberville will win the division and Auburn will finish in the top 10. Right?
3. Arkansas: OK, so Matt Jones is the offense's only returning starter. OK, so Houston Nutt lost 18 starters, but let's fantasize a bit: Texas, Alabama, Georgia and LSU all come to Arkansas. Split with those four and the season is a success.
4. Mississippi State: Call me crazy, but I think Sly Croom is going to be able to squeeze out six or seven victories in his first season. The players have bought in quickly.
5. Mississippi: Taking over for Eli Manning, Michael Spurlock is a dual threat. There are lots of receivers but few that can be relied upon consistently.
6. Alabama: The tiebreaker with Mississippi State? Bulldogs win at Tuscaloosa.