Vols deserve to be playing for SEC


Published: Saturday, December 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, November 30, 2007 at 6:30 p.m.

Forget how they got here.

Because that only clouds the picture.

Forget the fact that the defense ranked next to last in scoring defense and total defense. Forget that no SEC team suffered a worse road loss than their 39-point beatdown in September. Forget how close they came to losing so many times. Forget how their coach seemed on the precipice of unemployment.

Forget who's hot.

Forget who's not.

Because when the dust settled, the Tennessee Volunteers qualified for an improbable SEC Championship Game. And no matter how Georgia fans and Florida fans wish they could tweak the numbers, it's the Vols fans who are in Atlanta eating fried green tomatoes and drinking sweet cocktails at Pitty Pat's Porch and marveling at the beluga whales at the downtown aquarium.

And no matter how you want to look at it, Tennessee won it fair and square. Everyone knew the rules governing the SEC East at the beginning of the season.

Tennessee (AVERT YOUR EYES IF YOU ARE WEARING ORANGE AND BLUE GLASSES!) deserves to be here.

Give the Vols credit.

They played nothing but playoff games after their loss to Alabama, a humiliating defeat considering the Tide lost five prominent players before the game because of a textbook scandal, also known around the SEC as Operation Gotcha!

“If you watched any SEC football this year,” said Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge, “you could see that anybody could beat anybody. That's what made this an incredible year in this conference.

“So we knew that even with two losses we had a chance. We knew we were never out of it. If we'd lost a third game, that would have been tough. But we knew if we didn't lose another game, we'd have a chance.”

Florida found out that — by losing its third SEC game — the chances of making it to Atlanta were reduced to lottery odds. Georgia, on the other hand, can't believe it's not playing for the title.

The Georgia athletic department will receive a trophy that proclaims UGA as the SEC East champions. Both UGA and Tennessee get a trophy because they technically tied for the East title.

But only one team is here in Atlanta getting ready to play for a championship.

Georgia fans have consoled themselves in the real possibility of playing in a much better bowl — probably a BCS bowl game — than the loser (and maybe the winner) of this game.

They breathe in the noxious fumes of sports talk radio and ESPN's day-to-day opinions that proclaim the Bulldogs as one of the best teams in the country. They dream of the right things happening that would allow them to play for a national title.

But they are not here.

“Fans are going to be fans,” said Tennessee tight end Chris Brown. “They want what they want. But we know we're going to be in the championship game.”

There definitely is the sense of a letdown in Atlanta. LSU was supposed to be here one win away from a national title. Georgia should be here with one of the nation's hottest teams, right?

Tennessee? Didn't the Vols get waxed by Florida and Alabama? Didn't they come within a foot of losing at home to Vanderbilt? How'd Tennessee get here?

By finding ways to win games the Vols should have lost. By recovering a fumble that could have lost a game. By coming from behind. By being resilient when the Vols have blown leads.

This week on a conference call, I asked Ainge if this team has a chip on its shoulder because people don't think the Vols belonged in Atlanta.

“Obviously, yeah,” he said. “If Georgia thinks it should be in Atlanta, if Georgia thinks it should have won the East, Georgia should have beaten us.”

Touche'.

“Some people seem to forget we beat Georgia,” Brown said.

Let's face it — the way this college football season has gone, it would be fitting to have a team in Atlanta with an awful defense, a coach who was on the hot seat and three devastating losses on its resume.

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