Fulmer gets ready for SEC East showdown with Florida

Tuesday, September 12th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- There's no dancing around the issue.

The winner of Saturday's game between No. 6 Florida and No. 11 Tennessee has the advantage in the eastern division of the Southeastern Conference.

Since divisional play began in 1992, the winner of the Florida-Tennessee game has won the SEC East six of eight seasons.

The loser of the game has won it the other two.

Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer knows it as well as anyone else.

"The magnitude has increased dramatically with divisional play and the fact that it is played so early in the year. It is a big game," Fulmer said Tuesday at his weekly news conference.

The loser has been able to advance to the SEC championship game twice. Florida did it in 1992 after losing in Knoxville 31-14, when Tennessee subsequently lost three SEC games. The Volunteers took the title in '97 when Florida went on to lose to LSU and Georgia.

"You can, as we did in '97, win the conference without winning (the game). But you end up chasing and hoping that they lose somewhere along the line. You really don't like that," Fulmer said.

As head coach at Tennessee, Fulmer is 2-6 against the Gators. He doesn't seem discouraged by the numbers.

"I like this game. I like preparing for it. I'd say it's the reason you come to Tennessee or you coach at Tennessee is to play in games like this. If you don't like coaching in these games you don't need to be coaching at this level," he said.

Many Tennessee freshmen, including the quarterback, will be facing Florida for the first time Saturday. Fulmer says being eager to play is a good thing, not a distraction.

"You hope they get excited about playing the game. I think our team has done pretty well with that," he said. "This game has such ramifications. You know they understand that. I don't see it as a psyche-out deal."

Tennessee has made changes since its season-opener two weeks ago.

Redshirt freshman A.J. Suggs will start at quarterback in place of Joey Mathews, who has been sidelined in practice by a hurt left knee. True freshman Casey Clausen also could see some playing time, although his work has been limited this fall by an inflamed rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder.

The young offensive line faces a huge task in preventing the fast Florida defense from attacking as they did in the Gators'

23-21 victory last year in Gainesville. Tee Martin was sacked seven times, five times by Alex Brown.

Four of the five linemen, including true freshman Michael Munoz, are new starters this year.

"I think we got better -- and certainly needed to -- from the Southern Mississippi game. In many places, it's kind of a daily adventure with some of the youth we have on the field," Fulmer said.

The Tennessee coaches expect a high level of performance out of the Gators, who downed Ball State and Middle Tennessee by a combined 95-19 without breaking a serious sweat.

"I don't believe Florida was challenged in the first couple of games. They didn't have to do too much. We expect their very best and they'll expect ours," Fulmer said.