Tennessee Stat Book
ATLANTA - To get here, everything lined up just right for Tennessee.
Missed field goals by Vanderbilt and South Carolina, crucial losses by SEC East favorite Florida and those dramatic turns last week against Kentucky - all played their part.
And now it's all falling in line again as the Vols make their first appearance in the SEC championship game since 2004.
When the ball hits the climate-controlled air in the Georgia Dome today at 4 p.m. (TV: WVLT) with an SEC championship on the line, 14th-ranked Tennessee will be in the underdog role it relished for much of the year.
As far as defensive tackle Demonte' Bolden is concerned, the clock favors Tennessee, too.
"It's time," Bolden said. "It's definitely time. I'm going to say that because I'm playing.
"It's definitely time for us to win this SEC championship and hopefully go on and kill the stereotypes about Tennessee."
Tennessee (9-3, 6-2 SEC) has put the hush on its harshest critics with five straight wins to clinch the SEC East.
One more win and Tennessee can hoist its first SEC championship trophy since 1998 and punch its first BCS ticket since it earned a berth in the 2000 Fiesta Bowl.
A win and UT is off to the Sugar Bowl in new Orleans on Jan. 1.
Meanwhile, No. 4 LSU enters today's game limping, literally and figuratively.
The Tigers (10-2, 6-2), ranked No. 1 for much of the season, lost their national title hopes in three overtimes last week against Arkansas.
Quarterback Matt Flynn is a game-time decision, with an injury to his throwing shoulder.
All-America defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey has been hobbled by back spasms, even admitting this week that he won't be playing at 100 percent.
Safety Craig Steltz, tailback/kick returner Trindon Holliday and safety Curtis Taylor aren't fully healthy, either.
Those injuries have played a major part in the recent decline of LSU's defense.
The Tigers still lead the SEC and rank third nationally in total defense, but they have given up 209 total points in their final seven SEC games, two of which went to triple overtime.
In LSU's last two conference games, Arkansas rolled up 513 yards of total offense and Ole Miss - the same Ole Miss that went winless in the SEC and ranks ninth in the conference in total offense - posted 466 yards and 24 points.
Then there's the Tigers coaching staff.
LSU coach Les Miles will presumably interview with Michigan soon, after LSU athletic director Skip Bertman gave the Wolverines permission to speak with Miles.
ESPN.com reported that defensive coordinator Bo Pelini will be introduced as Nebraska's head coach on Monday barring any last-minute snags.
Miles, however, maintained Friday that the coaching rumors haven't been a distraction.
"This is about this team," Miles said. "I promise you, if you think that it's a conversation I can have with my wife, I can't. It's not something I talk about. It would be certainly a distraction to me and be cheating my team. I wouldn't do it. So we'll get beyond this game, and we'll see what happens."
Physically, the Vols are banged up themselves.
Reserve tailback Montario Hardesty (ankle) likely won't play; and others, like freshman cornerback Brent Vinson (shoulder), are playing through pain.
Emotionally, though, the Vols are riding high. And they're clinging to that underdog role one more time.
"I really do like where we're at right now," linebacker Jerod Mayo said. "Nobody giving us a chance to win and things like that. I know I've been saying it for the past few weeks, but I like being in the underdog role. I think we play better as a team."
Ultimately, that's what it comes down.
Once the ball is kicked, the championship will be decided by the 11 players on the field.
And distractions only go so far.
"Guys, we're playing for the Southeastern Conference championship," Fulmer said. "Both schools are. And that's something that doesn't happen every day.
"After the ball is snapped, kicked off and stuff, outside perimeter stuff, that really doesn't matter too much."
Drew Edwards covers University of Tennessee football. He may be reached at 865-342-6274.