That same Saturday Fulmer bowed out with one last win over Kentucky, Alabama beat Auburn to finish the regular season 12-0 in Nick Saban’s second season, a dramatic leap from 7-6 in his first.
The rest is SEC history.
The national title streak is at seven. Saban and Alabama have won three of the past four and show no sign of backing off in 2013.
The NFL draft is once again front-loaded with SEC talent. Next week, the conference will announce its own TV network.
“Seven, it’s hard to believe it’s been that many years in a row because there are certainly other really good teams out there,’’ Fulmer said Friday during a break from the annual golf tournament he hosts at Willow Creek on behalf of the Boys & Girls Clubs.
Fulmer, however, doesn’t believe the SEC’s dominance dates only to Florida’s 2006 national title, the first of the seven.
“It’s been that way a lot longer than seven years,’’ he said.
Fair point. The SEC has won 10 of the past 17 titles, including Tennessee’s 1998 contribution.
Still, it all seems to have gone to another level. It’s almost as if Oregon or Ohio State are playing for the “best of the rest” distinction, the right to end the season in some stadium watching an SEC team hoist the crystal football.
Maybe the streak ends in 2013, maybe not. A four-team playoff is coming in 2014.
In Fulmer’s mind, the SEC championship game has long been a de facto playoff. It began in 1992 and Alabama used it as a springboard to a national title. The SEC has won 11 titles in its 21-year championship-game era.
“I used to tell everybody that winning your division was like winning the old (pre-division) conference,’’ Fulmer said, “and winning the SEC championship was like winning the semifinals of the national championship.
“It’s harder to win that game than it would be to win the national championship. It absolutely is.’’
We’ll never know if UT would have won the 2001 national title game against Miami. The No. 2 Vols were upset by LSU in the SEC championship game, costing them a trip to the Rose Bowl and an opportunity to play for a second BCS title in four years. Miami beat Nebraska to win the crown.
“We had a national championship,’’ Fulmer said, “and we had three teams that were probably better than that team that didn’t win it — ’95, ’97 and 2001.
“So you’ve got to be fortunate to get to that end game.’’
That’s a strong statement by the head coach. Three teams better than the revered, undefeated ‘98 champs?
Both the ’95 and ’97 Vols were essentially
eliminated from the national title chase by early losses to Florida. The ’95 Vols finished No. 3 in the final poll after a Citrus Bowl win over Ohio State, the ’97 team No. 7 after an Orange Bowl loss to Nebraska.
The ’01 team was title-game bound until it lost to LSU in Atlanta. The consolation prize was a Citrus Bowl win over Michigan and a No. 4 final ranking.
Titles and rankings aren’t a big talking point at UT lately. The Vols haven’t been on the bandwagon for the extended SEC joyride.
Fulmer hopes athletic director Dave Hart is addressing some of the institutional issues that likely contributed to UT’s decline.
He has also met with new coach Butch Jones and came away impressed:
“I think he’s going to be great, I really do. We’ve got to be patient. It’s about recruiting, getting the right guys.’’
Everybody in the league seems to be getting the right guys. Even Vanderbilt.
“That won’t do anything but help because that will raise our level of play,’’ Fulmer said.
“That guy (coach James Franklin) has done a good job. But it’s still Vanderbilt and we should still be better than them.’’
That would be a step back in the right direction, the first step toward resuming its place in the best league that just seems to keep getting better.
Mike Strange may be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at Strangemike44.