Originally created 09/15/99

Vols now take big games in stride



KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- A national title and back-to-back conference championships have taken the edge off big game hype for No. 2 Tennessee and coach Phillip Fulmer.

For years, the Vols often got too tight to play well in a big game -- "puckered up," Fulmer used to call it -- but gradually Tennessee learned to take things in stride.

It's now a regular practice as Saturday's showdown with No. 4 Florida approaches, even if Fulmer doesn't know exactly where it came from.

"No, for the 14th time, it was not a conscious effort," Fulmer said Tuesday when asked if he tries to relax his players in these situations. "I myself did not say, "Hey, guys, we've got to lighten up about Florida.' No, we didn't do that."

Maybe it stems from Fulmer's low-key personality and approach to coaching. Or maybe it's a matter of experience. The Vols have won the last two Southeastern Conference championship games and split a pair of bowl games with national title implications. Perhaps just as importantly, they finally beat Florida last year.

Fulmer's approach will be tested anew Saturday in the yearly showdown for supremacy in the SEC Eastern Division. Tennessee and Florida have won the last six SEC titles and two of the last three national titles, but the Vols have not beaten the Gators in Gainesville in six tries since 1971.

Even with all that's on the line, the Tennessee camp insists it's just the next game on the schedule. That's the way Fulmer likes it.

"We've gotten better, we've got more experience as a staff and as a team, and we've had more exposure" to big games, Fulmer said. "One of the best experiences we've had was the Nebraska game with all that hype. It didn't turn out like we wanted it to, but a lot of these guys have been through that and learned from it."

That was the Orange Bowl at the end of the 1997 season, when Nebraska rolled over the Vols to earn a share of the national championship. Tennessee has not lost since.

But then, they've only played the Gators once, and it was a razor thin victory in Knoxville last year. Despite five Florida turnovers the outcome was in doubt until a missed 32-yard field goal in overtime gave Tennessee a 20-17 victory and snapped the Gators' five-game winning streak in the series.

And low-key or not, Fulmer and all his players know what's at stake Saturday.

"Everybody's human. There's a lot of anticipation," Fulmer said. "This is why you come to Tennessee or go to Florida. You play hard all the time, but there's another level you play at in games like these."

Besides, he said, last year's victory has significantly reduced the "annoyance factor" of answering questions all year about why the Vols can't beat Florida.

The key to last year's game, besides the Florida turnovers, was Tennessee's defense against the run. The team that runs the ball better invariably wins this game, and last year Florida had a net of minus-13 yards on the ground to Tennessee's 171.

Fulmer says that may be the most noticeably improved area on this year's Florida team.

"Earnest Graham is a hammer running in there," Fulmer said. "He has given them another dimension."

Graham, a redshirt freshman who played in two games last year before getting injured, has rushed 30 times for 223 yards in the Gators' easy wins over Western Michigan and Central Florida.

Tennessee counters with Jamal Lewis, who had 159 yards two weeks ago against Wyoming, and Travis Henry, who added 54.