For starters, it's Clausen against the Gators

In Rick Clausen's mind, he won Tennessee's starting quarterback job during the dog days of August.

He knew it. His teammates knew it. Even some of the Vols' coaches knew it.

But when Tennessee head coach Phillip Fulmer handed out the starting assignment the week of the Alabama-Birmingham opener, Clausen was left holding the proverbial clipboard.

Fulmer went with Erik Ainge, who the Vols coach felt had more natural ability and would put more pressure on opposing defenses with his stronger arm.

"It's making a decision off of what you think can best get you to the Rose Bowl or get you to the championship game," Fulmer said at the time.

How ironic that the Vols' first major step in that quest will come with Clausen -- and not Ainge -- at the helm when they take to The Swamp Saturday night for their annual showdown with Florida.

Clausen was the more efficient quarterback in Tennessee's wobbly 17-10 win over UAB. Ainge, after looking good early, unraveled after coming back into the game.

Of course, part of Fulmer's reasoning in going with Ainge as the starter in the first place was because he knew how Clausen would respond if the Vols needed him off the bench. He was their savior a year ago when Ainge and Brent Schaeffer were injured.

Fulmer wasn't so sure about Ainge, who's admitted that playing in spurts has been "different."

"It's something I'm going to have to get used to," Ainge said. "The sooner I do, the better it will be for the team. But I'll be ready."

Clausen, selected as one of the Vols' team captains prior to the season, gets a kick out of hearing about everything he's not.

Can't throw it down the field. Can't move around and make plays. Can't squeeze the ball in tight spots.

"You wonder what I'm even doing at Tennessee," Clausen says facetiously.

Keep in mind that Clausen is the same player the Vols took off the scrap heap at LSU a few years ago when he was slowly spiraling down the Tigers' depth chart. He might have expected to come in and play at Tennessee eventually, but he was the only one.

Former LSU head coach Nick Saban turned him loose to Tennessee knowing that the Tigers would have to face the Vols during the last year of Clausen's remaining eligibility. How many SEC coaches would ever let a player walk (at least one they thought could play) and take a chance on that guy coming back to beat them?

The short answer: None.

But Clausen has bucked the odds. He's smart, doesn't try to get outside his limitations and has an edge about him that wears off on his teammates.

"With Rick Clausen, all that kid does is win games," Florida head coach Urban Meyer said. "All I keep hearing is, 'Yeah, but his arm strength.' His arm strength is fine. Just ask Texas A&M how his arm strength is. He's not very mobile, but he's mobile enough to win games."

The Clausen family also has a pretty good track record when it comes to The Swamp. Rick's older brother, Casey, never lost there in two starts. Not bad when you consider Peyton Manning, Tee Martin and Heath Shuler are a combined 0-for-The Swamp.

"The louder it is, the better it is," Rick Clausen said. "That's the way I look at it, just because there's nothing better than going to another person's stadium and trying to silence the crowd."

While Clausen was the starter last season in the SEC championship game loss to Auburn, he's yet to go on the road as the Vols' starter against a team as talented as Florida.

How will he respond?

"We're going to find out pretty quick," Clausen said. "Probably the closest thing to that was the SEC championship game. My numbers weren't very good [8-of-20, 69 yards, one touchdown], but I felt from an execution standpoint and running the offense that I did a pretty good job."

It's not as if the Vols are going to kick Ainge to the curb. He's too talented to forget about and proved last year that he could win big games. He engineered the comeback against Florida and also won on the road at Georgia, Mississippi and South Carolina.

Fulmer's preference is for either Clausen or Ainge to take the job and run with it. He's not particularly fond of a two-quarterback system.

But the Vols wouldn't be the first SEC team to win a championship with two quarterbacks sharing snaps for part or most of the season. In fact, since the league expanded in 1992 and went to two divisions, five teams have won championships while playing two quarterbacks.

Most recently, Georgia won the SEC title in 2002 with David Greene and D.J. Shockley dividing up the snaps. Greene was the clear-cut starter, but Shockley played in 10 games as a change-of-pace guy and would have played more had he not broken his foot in the second game against South Carolina.

Florida won the championship in 2000 with Jesse Palmer and Rex Grossman sharing the work. Palmer started off as the No. 1 guy and played the whole way that year against Tennessee, but Grossman took over midway through the season.

Andrew Zow and Tyler Watts shared snaps on Alabama's 1999 SEC championship team, while Danny Wuerffel and Terry Dean split up the work on both of Florida's 1993 and 1994 SEC championship teams.

Clausen doesn't care what combination the Vols use as long as it leads to a championship. He's also unfazed by Fulmer's initial decision to go with Ainge as the starter.

"I thought I played well enough in the spring, summertime and two-a-days to win the job," Clausen said. "Unfortunately, things just didn't happen the way I wanted them to do. That's kind of been the story of my life. Everything kind of takes a little bit longer for me to be successful."

Chris Low covers the SEC for The (Nashville) Tennessean.