sports (2006-38)

Florida finds the weak link in the Fulmer-Cutcliffe-Chavis Trifecta

Who’s Missing the Magic?

by Tony Basilio

The dynamic trio of Phillip Fulmer, David Cutcliffe and John Chavis are back together again. They brought a gaudy 47-5 record into the Florida game last weekend. From ’95 through ’98 they were virtually unbeatable losing only to Steve Spurrier’s Gators three times as well as Memphis and Nebraska. FCC-1 was Fulmer, Cutcliffe and Chavis surrounded by stars like Manning and Wilson. In close games they were virtually unbeatable. That proved true even against Spurrier’s mighty Gators when the Vols beat UF in ’98 and ’01. FCC-2 picked up right where FCC-1 left off with a smashing win over Cal and a close shave versus Air Force. The Air Force game is undoubtedly a game that the ’05 edition of the Vols would’ve dropped. That was the Fulmer-Sanders-Chavis era. One wrought with what-if’s and never were’s. Four words define Tennessee’s surprising, inspiring start to the ’06 football season—Fulmer’s magic is over. The Vols did most everything necessary to topple the Gators but still couldn’t get a win in front of a reborn, raucous Neyland Stadium crowd that brought it for four quarters. The night was truly magical. The result wasn’t.

The magic of the ’98 UT-Florida game was in the stadium Saturday night. You could feel it! The Vols were going to win and crack the Top 10. Alas the Vol Nation was proclaiming in one voice that the Big Orange were back in the SEC and national title hunt. There was the courage of Justin Harrell who gave a lionesque effort playing on one arm. Harrell carved out his place in Vol lore by not only playing with a torn bicep muscle but making plays even to the point of attempting to stop a Gator ball carrier who appeared to literally tear the UT senior’s arm off on an attempted tackle in the second quarter. With his arm dangling from his side after the play, a wincing Harrell was aided from the field with fans cheering his effort. Television commentators ascertained that “He has to be done for the night.” Harrell obviously didn’t get the memo as he returned in the second half and not only played but had an impact in the second half. That’s magical!  There was the 48-yard trick pass from wide receiver Lucas Taylor to running back LaMarcus Coker. How ’bout Erik Ainge staring down a ferocious Gator defense to connect with Jason Swain on a 29-yard slant to the Gator one, a play that was originally ruled a touchdown. The Vols eventually punched it in for a 17-7 lead early in the third quarter. That’s magical! James Wilhoit gave the Vols a six-point lead with a 51-yard field goal with 10:49 to play in the game. It was a 51-yard field goal that doomed the Gators 24 months earlier in Neyland Stadium. That’s magic!

David Cutcliffe did his part against the Gators. His offense was effective enough to win. The decision to open the game with a long ball is to be commended. He put Erik Ainge in a position to win the game with quick three step drop passes and slants that took advantage of a chomping Gator defense that was obviously superior to the Tennessee’s prone offensive line.

John Chavis did his job. His defense smothered the Gators for 3 quarters before yielding in the game’s final 15 minutes. His guys were playing without cornerback Inky Johnson who suffered a devastating injury in the Air Force game.

They turned the ball over and seemingly scored what appeared to be definitive points in the second quarter when Marvin Mitchell intercepted a Chris Leak pass and returned it for a touchdown. The play was called back on a questionable hanky from the zebras who flagged Jonathan Mapu for a phantom personal foul penalty that negated the play and gave the Gators a game altering first down. This misfortune didn’t happen during FCC-1. Fulmer’s magic is over.

The devastating nature of the Florida loss can’t possibly be understated. In the league’s 14 years with divisional play, the winner of the Vol-Gator matchup has played in the SEC Title Game nine times. Failure of the Vols to get to Atlanta is biting in that Tennessee has been absent from college football’s upper tier since crushing Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl. It has been close to a decade since the Vols played in the BCS. With a gathering storm approaching at Georgia and hot shot quarterback Matthew Stafford to build around, the Dawgs have already owned the Vols in this decade. Tennessee’s record falls to 1-6 at home versus Georgia and Florida in this decade. Now we have two full-blown nemeses to contend with in a coach named Urban and a huge freshman quarterback in Tim Tebow. Perhaps it was ironic that Tebow was reinserted into the game time and time again to run the quarterback keep on third and short. Tennessee never stopped him even though they knew what was coming. All of the sudden, a great effort replete with courage from start to finish against a top-flight opponent in your jam-packed building isn’t good enough. Yeah. Four words. Fulmer’s magic is gone.

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