Even after a nerve-wracking 27-24 overtime victory over No. 16 South Carolina on Saturday night, it's difficult to tell. Fulmer has felt more heat than any coach east of Lincoln, Neb., this season, and it's unclear whether a key triumph that put the Volunteers in control of their destiny in the Southeast Conference East Division race cooled the heat or turned it up.
Yes, the Volunteers won. But they almost blew a 21-0 halftime lead and were fortunate to avoid their fourth loss. Four losses qualifies as a mulligan in Knoxville, and Fulmer used his up two seasons ago when the Vols limped to a 5-6 finish, then followed up with last year's 9-4 record. There was a feeling Saturday night that the 105,962 at Neyland Stadium were just waiting for a reason to throw coals on the firecoachfulmer Web site. No doubt, Fulmer was feeling it, too. In fact, he admitted as much.
"It was almost comical, actually, at a very serious time when we were getting ready to take the (pregame) 'Vol Walk'‚ we had a nice laugh about the grim reaper being at my house here at Halloween," Fulmer said. "(The players) didn't know whether to laugh at first or not. But they finally broke up and broke the ice.
"A lesser team with a lesser spirit and a lesser will would have lost the game tonight.
So would a team with less luck.
Tennessee (5-3 overall, 3-2 in the SEC) blew that 21-0 halftime lead, then caught just about every break imaginable after Ryan Succop's 49-yard field goal gave South Carolina (6-3, 3-3) a 24-21 lead with 1:24 left.
TENNESSEE 27, SOUTH CAROLINA 24, OT
Player of the game
Tennessee freshman safety Eric Berry posted 12 tackles and returned a fumble 52 yards to South Carolina's 2 to set up a touchdown. He also returned an interception to South Carolina's 44 to set up another touchdown.
Trailing 24-21 after Ryan Succop's 49-yard field goal, Tennessee's LaMarcus Coker reversed field on the ensuing kickoff return and ran 37 yards to set the Volunteers up at their 47 with 1:11 left. A few player later, the Vols got a break when Arian Foster fumbled and lineman Jacques McClendon recovered at South Carolina's 26.
Best coaching move
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier replaced starting quarterback Chris Smelley midway through the second quarter and brought in senior Blake Mitchell. Smelley had been ineffective, passing for just 40 yards with an interception. Mitchell was 29 of 42 for 288 yards and a touchdown. It would have been a better move had Spurrier brought him in sooner.
What's a bigger surprise than saving the game by making a mistake? Tennessee's Wes Brown was called for a false start just before freshman kicker Daniel Lincoln shanked a 43-yard game-tying field goal attempt with five seconds left. Given a second chance, Lincoln converted from 48.
What this means for Tennessee
The Volunteers improve to 3-2 in the SEC East and are 1/2 game behind Georgia (4-2) in the standings. But by virtue of its 35-14 win over Georgia, Tennessee is in control of its destiny in the race.
What this means for South Carolina
The Gamecocks, who were ranked 16th in the nation, will be in danger of falling out of the Top 25 two weeks after they were in the top 10. At 3-3, they also fall back in the pack in the SEC East.
Tennessee has won 14 of its past 15 games against South Carolina. ... Tennessee coach Phil Fulmer improved his record to 5-8 against Steve Spurrier. ... Tennessee offensive tackle Eric Young apparently injured a knee late in the fourth quarter and may miss the remainder of the season. ... The Volunteers allowed just their third sack of the season. ... Six different Tennessee players recorded at least 10 tackles. ... South Carolina junior wide receiver Kenny McKinley tied a school record with 14 receptions for 151 yards and extended his streak of consecutive games with a catch to 30. ... South Carolina tailback Cory Boyd rushed for 160 yards on 20 carries.
LaMarcus Coker returned the ensuing kickoff 37 yards to midfield. Arian Foster fumbled on a third-down run, and even though a South Carolina player had a hand on the loose ball, Vols lineman Jacques McClendon recovered at South Carolina's 26. Finally, when Tennessee kicker Daniel Lincoln grossly hooked a game-tying field goal attempt left, the Volunteers‚ Wes Brown was called for a false start — without question the best Tennessee penalty of the season.
Given another chance, Lincoln hit from 48 to tie it. He later converted from 27 yards in overtime to provide the winning margin.
But the Vols needed more good fortune to maintain that margin. South Carolina quarterback Blake Mitchell overthrew Kenny McKinley in the corner of the end zone on third down on the Gamecocks' OT possession. Then, Succop's field-goal attempt sailed wide right to send the Volunteers faithful into a frenzy and Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier into a tizzy.
"We played just good enough to lose and that's about how well we played," Spurrier said. "We made some yards and hit some passes, but in the clutch we didn't hit crap. We played just good enough to get our butts beat."
South Carolina outgained Tennessee 501 yards to 317 but also committed four turnovers. Two were turned into touchdowns by the Volunteers.
And still the Volunteers needed luck to escape with a victory, which is why Fulmer remains a lightning rod for critics. Maybe Fulmer is a victim of his own success. He's won a national championship, two SEC crowns and 142 games. Still, at times this season there have been moments in which one would swear he's liked better in Tuscaloosa or Gainesville than he is in Knoxville.
There was a time when a coach with a national championship on his resume would have the equivalent of a lifetime contract. But in this era of seven figure contracts — Fulmer reportedly earns $2.1 million per season — demanding fans expect more, and Fulmer hasn't delivered a championship since winning the SEC East in 2004. That's too long a drought on Rocky Top. But now Tennessee can win the SEC East if it can close out with wins over Arkansas, Vanderbilt and Kentucky.
Fulmer opened himself up for more second-guessing and criticism when the Volunteers, trying to protect a 21-14 lead, faced third-and-3 at their 46 at the start of the third quarter. Fulmer had Ainge, who was struggling with his accuracy; throw on third and fourth down. Both fell incomplete, and given good field position, South Carolina quickly drove for a game-tying touchdown.
And just before Succop was about to attempt the field goal that gave South Carolina the lead late in the fourth quarter, Fulmer called one of his two remaining timeouts to ice the kicker. Fulmer was fortunate that he didn't need that final timeout, and he owes a debt of gratitude to Coker - whose weaving kickoff return set the Vols up with good field position.
Then, it was a false-start penalty, of all things, that saved the day, and may have ultimately saved Fulmer from the grim reaper.
"Thank goodness we had a second chance," Fulmer said. "The football gods were good to us."
Maybe that answers the question of what was looking over Fulmer.
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.