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Wednesday, November 6
Updated: November 7, 6:34 PM ET
Vols playing role of spoiler now

By Pat Forde
Special to

It wasn't exactly Churchillian oratory, but Tennessee defensive tackle Rashad Moore effectively summed up what's left of the Volunteers' disappointing season:

"Right now, we can't do nothing but be party poopers and try to poop everybody's party."

Inspirational, isn't it?

In other words: Put on your Pampers, Miami Hurricanes. You're entering the Poop Zone.

The defending national champions come to Neyland Stadium Saturday. They have won 30-straight games, tied with Darrell Royal's Texas dynasty of the late 1960s for the tenth-longest streak in Division I history. The bull's-eye on the 'Canes' backs is visible with the naked eye from outer space.

ULM is still optimistic
You've got to like Ben Wright.

No, not THAT Ben Wright; he's a veddy British golf announcer whose mouth once got him in a bunch of trouble. This Ben Wright is a senior tight end for the Louisiana-Monroe Indians.

He has the optimistic attitude that helps make the sport wonderful and fraudulent at the same time. His team is 2-7. It is ranked 146th in the nation according to the Sagarin Ratings (ahead of just five other I-A teams). It lost to North Texas by 39 last week. It is in the midst of a road swing in which the Indians are the homecoming opponent three straight weeks.

"Playing other people's homecomings is pretty much an insult," Wright said. "You try to use that, take that insult onto the field."

The field they take it into Saturday is 86,000-seat Jordan-Hare Stadium at Auburn. The Indians are a 35-point underdog.

And Wright can't wait to get there and tee it up.

"Just because we're a smaller school or underdog, it's still an opportunity for us to go out and perform and prove to other people that we know how to play football," Wright said at UL-M's weekly press conference. "You know in college football, there's always favorites and underdogs, but if the underdogs never won then there wouldn't be the game that we love today."

He's right, of course And dead wrong, too.

Without that kind of outlook, the Ben Wrights and Louisiana-Monroes might as well fold up and get into intramurals. UL-M and its Sun Belt counterparts are as close as it gets in Division I-A to Underdog U., so eternal optimism is a necessity. And football is dead if it ever runs out of optimistic underdogs.

But that's also the kind of outlook that keeps the current system in place: the BCS schools are the haves, everyone else is the have-nots -- and nobody has less than the Sun Belt have-nots. The comparisons in facilities, budgets and backing between an Auburn and a Louisiana-Monroe are a joke.

From a football perspective, these two schools have very little in common.

In reality, the Indians have no chance for anything Saturday beyond a much-needed, six-figure paycheck. But as long as they're willing to take their whipping at a price, the Auburns aren't compelled to schedule any differently and the Louisiana-Monroes will remain on the other side of the planet in terms of competitiveness.

For the sake of Louisiana-Monroe, it would be nice to see a competitive game. The Indians have been through significant upheaval this year, with coach Bobby Keasler resigning after three games. Yet until the North Texas debacle they had retained their competitiveness. Upgraded it, actually, with true freshman quarterback Steven Jyles performing wonderfully and the team rallying around the schematic and attitudinal adjustments of interim coach Mike Collins.

"The progress we've made as a football team will help us in this ball game because we are more prepared," Collins said.

But you can only prepare so much. Sooner or later -- and in this one, it'll be around opening kickoff -- talent takes over. It could get ugly.

Yet the visitors must at least bring belief with them on this homecoming road trip, and Ben Wright seems like he's packing his. Otherwise, it's not worth showing up.

-- Pat Forde

"Every game they play becomes tougher, and more and more pressure," Florida coach Ron Zook said of Miami, in burst of candor. (Zook normally has an amazing ability to speak at the speed of light yet still smother his words in caution.)

"How do you maintain a level of excellence game after game? It's hard to do. To me, they've got as hard a coaching job to do right now as anyone."

It's their party and they'll try if they want to (effort appeared optional against Rutgers last week). And the Volunteers will do their best to poop said party.

"All the pressure is on them," defensive back Julian Battle said. "For us, there's nothing to be scared of."

After enduring the injuries, the acrimony, the fumbles in the rain, the missed tackles, the sporadic running game, the scoring struggles and the avalanche of fan displeasure to reach this point, there truly is no fear factor for the Vols. The season has already taken a hard fall; another defeat can't hurt much more, other than giving Big Orange its first four-loss regular season since 1994.

The national title dreams slipped in September against Florida and disappeared in mid-October against Georgia. Alabama applied the coup de grace (and undoubtedly enjoyed it, given the bitterness between the two fan bases) a couple of weeks later.

When your biggest win to date is over the worst South Carolina team of the past three years and the best thing you can say about the season is that you could easily be 4-4 instead of 5-3 (thank you, Arkansas kicker Brennan O'Donohoe), it's clear. This has become a salvage operation.

Tennessee doesn't revel in that sort of role, because it's been beneath it in recent years. But what better salvage opportunity than a team of Miami's stature and swagger coming into your crib?

"We haven't had exactly the season we wanted to have for a number of reasons," coach Phil Fulmer said. "But that hasn't made this game any less important."

The continuing Kelley Washington saga notwithstanding (see below notes, which have come to serve as a soap opera digest where Washington is concerned), there are reasons to believe the Vols pose a credible threat to the Hurricanes. One reason in particular.

Tennessee might have rediscovered its running game in the nick of time to face a Miami defense that has been susceptible to the run.

The Vols rushed for a season-high 241 yards against the Gamecocks last week. The leader was Cedric Houston, who had missed a chunk of the season with a broken hand, with a career-high 108.

Prior to that, Tennessee had run for a measly 129 yards per game, far below Fulmer standards. The Vols hit bottom the week before against Alabama with a 59-yard rushing output.

"I think our kids were embarrassed, to be quite honest," Fulmer said.

The Hurricanes, meanwhile, are a vulnerable 77th in America at stopping the run. Greg Jones of Florida State gouged them for 189 yards. Avon Cobourne of West Virginia gouged them for 175 yards. Next?

Fulmer undoubtedly would feel better with a Travis -- Henry or Stephens -- taking handoffs this week. But that's the state of this team at present: more than the usual number of liabilities and questions marks.

Nevertheless, the opportunity for an industrial-strength make-good has arrived. Miami's party has come to town, and the poop is in the pudding. Or something like that.

Around the SEC

The Crimson Tide's defense has become a steel trap, ranking second in the nation in yards per game (249) and fifth against the run (76 ypg). Alabama also leads the SEC in sacks with 31. Coordinator Carl Torbush, former head coach at North Carolina, believes that the trial-and-error process involved in implementing his scheme last year is now over. "All of the sudden this thing is working," Torbush told the Birmingham News. "They know how to made adjustments, they know how to respond instead of acting like a robot. It's a rewarding feeling." Chances are good for another strong defensive performance this week, with offensively challenged Mississippi State coming to Tuscaloosa. ... The Crimson Tide is riding a four-game road SEC winning streak, including three this year.

How impressive were the Razorbacks in their 23-0 win over Troy State last week? Not very, according to the men of Troy, who already have played Nebraska, Iowa State, Missouri and Marshall this season. "This is the SEC and I grew up in the South and I've always respected the SEC as being smash-mouth teams," defensive tackle Davern Williams told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. "I expected a little more from Arkansas." ... The Hogs are now 15-0 in non-conference games under Houston Nutt. That's a nice record, but it's more indicative of horrid competition than excellence from Arkansas. ... Strong safety Bo Mosley returned an interception 50 yards for a touchdown against Troy State and recovered a blocked punt in the end zone for another TD. The Razorbacks have blocked four punts this year, and Mosley has been involved in all of them.

Tailback Ronnie Brown is making quite a pitch for Backup of the Year honors -- not just in the SEC, but nationally. The world anticipated the Tigers' offense grinding to a halt after centerpiece Carnell "Cadillac" Williams broke his leg, but Brown has picked up the load and lugged it into the end zone. Repeatedly. In the past three games, Brown has scored seven rushing TDs and gained 482 yards, topped by 224 yards last week against Ole Miss. ... The Tigers dip out of conference this week to blast Louisiana-Monroe, but next week they'll be in the odd position of rooting for Alabama. The Tigers are a game behind LSU in the loss column in the Western Division but beat LSU head-to-head, so a Crimson Tide victory Nov. 16 in Baton Rouge and an Auburn win over Georgia would put Auburn in the driver's seat for the SEC championship game. Of course, then they'd have to beat Alabama, which is ineligible for the title, in the final week to seal the deal.

Ron Zook's rookie roller-coaster ride continues. The Gators' upset of Georgia last week now gives the much-pilloried coach two victories over Top Five teams, a first for a first-year Florida coach. Rex Grossman looked like his old self against the Bulldogs with a career-high 36 completions, and the defense rose to the occasion repeatedly. "Our team has improved," Zook said. "I really believe we're getting better." ... Zook said he received a congratulatory phone call from Steve Spurrier, a guy who just loved beating the Bulldogs. "I talk to Coach quite often," Zook said, adding that he borrowed some of his preparation for the Georgia game from his time on Spurrier's staff in the early 1990s. "I was really impressed with the way Coach handled it," Zook said. "I tried to take the same mode and philosophy he took in that game." ... Florida's next two games are against Vanderbilt and South Carolina, teams the Gators have beaten a combined 22 consecutive times. Only three of those have been decided by a touchdown or less.

A couple of members of the lunatic fringe have made life difficult for Bulldogs wide receiver and team captain Terrence Edwards since he dropped a potential game-tying pass at midfield against Florida, a loss that likely cost Georgia its place in the national title picture. Edwards had a message from an angry Georgia fan on his home voice mail after the game, and on Monday saw a car with his number and that of offensive tackle George Foster crossed out on the window. (Foster committed a personal-foul penalty that led to a long missed field-goal attempt.) Here's some real-life perspective for the yahoos: Edwards spent time after the Florida loss sitting with his mother, Jeannette, in a Jacksonville hospital after she fainted during the game. "I made a mistake," the team captain told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution of his dropped pass. "I'm human." Edwards, the SEC's active leader in career receptions and receiving yardage, has received an outpouring of support from rational Georgia fans since the criticism became public. ...The Bulldogs have outfitted big-play wide receiver Fred Gibson with a cast in hopes that he can get back on the field after missing the last two games with a thumb injury. "His success rate has not been unbelievable, but he's making progress with it," coach Mark Richt said. "He'll probably play." ... Richt might have fallen into a habit against Florida that he was occasionally accused of while calling plays at Florida State: abandoning the running game too quickly. Georgia ran it 36 times against the Gators and threw it 36 times. The worst pass of the night came from backup D.J. Shockley, who had an interception run back for a touchdown. That and the Bulldogs' oh-fer conversion rate on third down reopened the debate about Richt's two-quarterback system.

The Wildcats' all-white starting receiving corps of Aaron Boone, Derek Abney and Tommy Cook has combined for 77 catches, 1,235 yards, 13 touchdowns and one catchy nickname. Seems some of the black players on the team have jokingly referred to the trio as "The Snow Storm." Lead storm trooper Abney, generously listed at 5-10 and 172 pounds, now has returned five kicks for touchdowns this year, after taking back two punts last week against Mississippi State. White Lightning is averaging 19.2 yards every time he touches the ball and is the only Division I-A player with at least 450 yards in receptions, punt returns and kickoff returns. His six career kick-return TDs ties the SEC record set by Vanderbilt's Lee "Long Gone" Nalley in the 1940s. "At one particular point it amazed me how tough this kid is," coach Guy Morriss said. "He's taken some shots, and he'll bounce back up like he's made out of Flubber, almost. It's almost like he's sending back a message to the guy that hit him, 'That didn't hurt me.' " ... Keen postgame observers last week in Starkville noted that Morriss offered former boss Jackie Sherrill his left hand at the postgame handshake. That wasn't a sign of disrespect; it was a sign that Morriss' right hand hurt like hell. He pounded his fist into a locker at halftime and broke it, but the theatrics paid off. The Cats turned a 17-16 halftime deficit into a 45-24 victory that makes them bowl-eligible -- if it weren't for that NCAA bowl ban. Morriss has a splint on the hand but shrugged off the injury. "I bet it's been broken a dozen times," said the old NFL offensive lineman.

This is Nick Saban's time of year. The LSU coach has won 12 out of his last 13 games played in November, December and January. He's 9-1 in such games in two years in Baton Rouge. ... An item certain to be making the bulletin boards at Kentucky this week: LSU used its open date to look ahead, putting in a couple of days' preparation for Alabama (Nov. 16) and Arkansas (Nov. 29). Saban nixed the option of extra prep for the Wildcats. "I really don't like for players to get ready for a game too soon," he told the Baton Rouge Advocate. "I think they get bored with it. When they get bored with it, they lose their edge on concentrating and focusing on it." ... Kentucky returner Abney has been all the talk around the league, but LSU might have his equal in Domanick Davis. Abney is third in the nation in punt returns at 18.9; Davis is fourth at 18.7. Davis is seventh in the nation in all-purpose running at 168 per game; Abney is ninth at 166. Whichever special teams unit is able to spring their return man Saturday in Lexington could produce the difference in the game.

This would qualify as news: Eli Manning is struggling, for perhaps the first extended period in his football career. Manning has committed seven turnovers the past three games, six of them interceptions. "He's been pressing a little bit, and when you do that you're going to make some mistakes," coach David Cutcliffe told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. "But there's not a tougher job in college football than to play quarterback in this league when you can't run the football." The Rebels are last in the league in rushing offense. ... Running back Ronald McClendon, who has not made the hoped-for impact since arriving as a highly touted prospect from junior college, did have his best game as a Rebel last week against Auburn with 62 yards on 12 carries. ... Georgia running back Musa Smith threw down the gauntlet to the Rebels. "Their run defense is weak," he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. But is Ole Miss equipped to do anything about it? The Rebels gave up 224 yards to Ronnie Brown last week and have surrendered 17 rushing touchdowns, second-most in the league (Vanderbilt has given up 21).

Mississippi State
Quarterback Kevin Fant came back from an ankle sprain and was woeful against Kentucky, completing 9 of 30 passes for 162 yards, with three touchdowns and three interceptions. Coach Jackie Sherrill said that in hindsight he would have been better off starting Kyle York and bringing in Fant in reserve, saying that his ankle is only about 80 to 85 percent. Of course, it was a mystifying coaching maneuver that got Fant hurt to begin with, having him run a quarterback draw in the closing seconds against Troy State instead of simply taking a knee and killing the clock.

South Carolina
Down eight late against Tennessee last week, Lou Holtz pulled quarterback Corey Jenkins and went with backup Dondrial Pinkins. The reason? Jenkins just doesn't have the passing skills necessary to play catch-up when time is running out. Jenkins was 5 of 13 on the day with three interceptions. Of course, Pinkins wound up 0-for-6, which means the Gamecocks should expect to see eight in the box until they prove they can do something about it. "In man coverage it takes accurate throws," offensive coordinator Skip Holtz told The State. "If you miss it a yard behind the guy, it's going to be picked. If you throw it a yard too long, it's going to be incomplete. They say, 'Throw it to beat me,' and that's not what our specialty has been." ... Lou Holtz said his team "has tried to bury the Tennessee game." It was the third straight tough loss to the Vols, the three coming by a total of 18 points.

The promised Kelley Washington update: the controversial wide receiver remains out with a concussion and may not play again this year. Meanwhile, former UT running back Onterrio Smith, now at Oregon, told The Tennessean that Washington basically duped Smith's buddy and fellow Vols wideout Donte' Stallworth into going pro last year, as a means of settling their simmering rivalry. Then Washington reneged on the agreement and returned to school. "Kelly was telling Donte', 'Let's both come out and see,' " Smith told the newspaper. "It was like a dare to see who would go higher. But Kelley pulled out and forced my man into the draft." ... Michael Munoz is due for some luck. The offensive tackle and son of Hall of Famer Anthony Munoz was sidelined last year by a blown knee. This year he's played through a shoulder injury and a broken hand, but this week wound up hospitalized with an ankle infection and resulting fever that could keep him out of the Miami game. ... In Kelley Washington's absence tight end Jason Witten has solidified his position as Casey Clausen's go-to receiver. He caught six passes against South Carolina for a season-high 72 yards.

Rex Grossman is coming to town, and Vandy's secondary is dinged all over. Not a good combination, and now the Commodores will be without cornerback Dominique Morris for the first half against Florida following his ejection for fighting last week in a loss to Alabama. "Dominique was actually leg-whipped on that play and impulse took over," coach Bobby Johnson told The Tennessean. "It injured the same knee that he had hurt before so he was upset. But that's still no excuse." Johnson, who instituted a no-cussing policy in preseason and has been big on comportment in general, said it was the first time one of his players has been ejected, "and it better be the last." ... Dan Stricker's next touchdown catch will put him in the record books as the all-time TD reception leader in school history. He currently has 20, tying him with Chuck Scott, who played in the early 1980s -- last time Vandy went to a bowl game.

Around the Sun Belt
Arkansas State scored a solid non-league victory over Southern Utah to improve to 5-6, giving the Indians a legitimate shot at their first winning record since 1995. The final two games for a team playing 13 consecutive weeks are both on the road, but they're against manageable opponents: Louisiana-Lafayette Saturday and Idaho the next week, both of whom are 2-7 at present. Arkansas State has ridden a ball-control, defensive-minded approach and is only surrendering 17 points per game in league play. First-year coach Steve Roberts, who has more victories in his first season at Arkansas State than any coach since 1955, is certainly in the league Coach of the Year argument. ... Idaho's bid for its first road win fell inches short in the form of Keith Stamps' 46-year field goal to tie Louisiana-Lafayette, resulting in a 31-28 loss. The Vandals are 2-7 and out of the league race, but now slip into potential spoiler mode. They play North Texas (3-0 in league play) this week on the road and then host New Mexico State (4-0) Nov. 23 to end the year. ... Following the ankle injury to starter Jon Van Cleave, junior-college transfer Eric Rekieta has the opportunity to lead a late-season surge for Louisiana-Lafayette. Rekieta, who had thrown just 18 passes this year, was the hero in relief against Idaho, completing 6 of 8 passes for 81 yards and leading two scoring drives for a 31-28 comeback win. "He did a fantastic job and we found a way to win at the end," coach Rickey Bustle said. "That's something we haven't been able to do." With Van Cleave doubtful this week against Arkansas State, Rekieta probably will get his first Division I start. Kicker Sean Comiskey's first successful field goal since Sept. 21 turned out to be the margin of victory. ... Louisiana-Monroe coach Mike Collins has not publicly politicked for the full-time job, but acknowledged this week that recruiting has been difficult while carrying the interim tag. Rivals have been using it against him with prospects. ... Middle Tennessee State is off this weekend, then closes with three straight home games that fall in the too-little-too-late category for a team that began the year as the league favorite. Playing just two home games before mid-November is nobody's idea of a cakewalk schedule. "Right now we've got a very tired football team," coach Andy McCollum said, noting that his team traveled the past two weeks to the most remote outposts in the league, Idaho and New Mexico State. ... Speaking of New Mexico State: The Aggies are the first and only team bowl-eligible so far, and Tony Samuel is trying to keep his eye on the Sun Belt prize while his name begins to make the rounds as a candidate for a higher-profile job next season. The Aggies remained in the driver's seat by rallying to beat Middle Tennessee last weekend but now face three straight road games to end the year. The first is a non-conference non-sequitir Saturday against future Sun Belt member Utah State, which could be a distraction for a team pointing toward a Nov. 16 showdown with North Texas. "Our objective is to go to the New Orleans Bowl," Samuel said. "That's it, the bottom line." The Aggies have endured the loss of QB Buck Pierce to injuries nicely because of the performance of stellar freshman Paul Dombrowski, but have also been hit with injuries at running back (Eric Higgins is questionable with a knee injury) and now linebacker (big-play man Richard Glover is questionable after a concussion). ... Don't look now, but North Texas has now won eight straight Sun Belt games dating back to last year. The Mean Green appears to have gotten its offense untracked at the ideal time. After a year of gridlock, the Mean Green rolled for 322 rushing yards last week. The defense has never been a concern, having allowed an average of four points per game in Sun Belt play. coach Darrell Dickey inadvertently uttered the Quote of the Year this week when asked about the looming showdown with New Mexico State and the potential for overlooking Idaho this week. "We're not going to get caught up in the media hype," Dickey said. That Sun Belt Media Hype, it's a killer.

Pat Forde covers college football for the Louisville Courier-Journal.

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