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Fulmer, Vols searching for solutions

It was the longest walk of Phillip Fulmer's head coaching career.

The 30 or so yards he navigated last Saturday night through a sea of cameramen and jubilant South Carolina players probably felt more like 30 miles.

There, waiting to shake his hand at midfield, was his old nemesis.

Yep (as the Head Ball Coach would say himself), Steve Spurrier did it to Fulmer again and did it with the weakest team he's ever brought to Neyland Stadium and almost certainly the weakest team he ever will bring.

Welcome to Rocky Top's version of rock bottom for Fulmer.

"This is unacceptable," Fulmer said simply.

The wheels of change already have been set in motion at Tennessee, which heads to No. 8-ranked Notre Dame on Saturday having lost three in a row for the first time in the Fulmer era.

The Vols (3-4) enter November with a losing record for the first time since 1988, the last time they finished with a losing record.

Keep in mind, this is the same team that started the season ranked No. 3 in the nation, returned 18 starters from last season's Cotton Bowl massacre of Texas A&M and was supposed to be loaded at every position.

"You don't point fingers," Fulmer said. "You go and you study and find reasons why things have happened."

With fan disappointment at an all-time high on his watch, Fulmer finds himself in the market for a new offensive coordinator.

Randy Sanders, never embraced by the Vol Nation, resigned Monday after Tennessee's offense plummeted to embarrassing depths. Out of 117 Division I-A teams, the Vols are 108th nationally in scoring offense, 99th in total offense, 98th in rushing offense and 101st in passing efficiency.

Most agree that Sanders was a probably a convenient scapegoat. He shouldered the blame for some bizarre gaffes, such as three lost fumbles inside the 10-yard line the last two weeks, and enough drops in the passing game to make a mailman envious.

But Sanders was the face of the Tennessee offense (even though it's Fulmer's offense), and he'd had enough.

The reality is that he was probably going to be fired or reassigned at season's end. The other reality is that he won't be the last change on offense.

Fulmer, who's prided himself on staff continuity, will shake up his offensive staff after the season. He will call offensive plays for the rest of this year with input from Sanders, who will stay on as quarterbacks coach through the end of the year.

"If I'm going to put in 14- and 16-hour days for six days and get the results we've got, that's not what I need," said Sanders, who played his last season at Tennessee in 1988 as a backup quarterback and has been there ever since as a coach.

"Somewhere along the line, things have gotten out of kilter a little bit offensively. I don't necessarily know that it's all my fault. But the fact is that it's my ship. We haven't played as we've needed to."

Sanders, whose first game as offensive coordinator was the 1998 national championship game after David Cutcliffe left to take the Mississippi head job, had one of his best years last season. He got two true-freshman quarterbacks ready and didn't miss a beat with a third quarterback when both were injured, helping the Vols get to the SEC Championship game.

But the quarterback situation this season has been a mess with Rick Clausen and Erik Ainge bouncing in and out of the lineup, and Tennessee has been abysmal at finishing drives. The Vols have driven the ball for just one meaningful touchdown in their last three games.

"I've never been afraid to change quarterbacks, change receivers or make a shakeup in the offensive line," Sanders said. "I'm not going to ask the quarterbacks to change if it's the best thing for the program if I'm not willing to do the same thing myself."

The question now: Where does Fulmer go from here?

Cutcliffe, who's living in Knoxville after being fired at Ole Miss last season, is at the head of Fulmer's list. Cutcliffe says he has a clean bill of health from his doctors after undergoing heart bypass surgery in March and wants to coach again.

But Cutcliffe would prefer to get back in the game as a head coach and has struggled emotionally with the events of the last few weeks. He's also extremely close with Sanders, who was mentored by Cutcliffe while coming up through the ranks at Tennessee.

"We need to make sure we take care of our business the rest of this season first, but David and I will certainly talk at the appropriate time," Fulmer said. "He's a fine football coach and a fine man."

Cutcliffe will certainly listen, too. He said he's keeping all of his options open and knows the Tennessee system as well as anyone.

But there's also a part of Fulmer that wonders whether the Vols need some new blood. He's compiling a list of some of the top offensive minds out there (college and pro) and insists he will look outside "The Family."

The frequent and debatable criticism of Tennessee is that its offensive system has become stale in trying to keep up with what defenses are doing these days. But what's not debatable is that the Vols have grown stale in what they've tried to do in that system the last few years.

"We're going to look around nationally and find the best person that fits what we want to do and brings the right things to the table," said Fulmer, who will never stray too far from what the Vols are doing on offense.

In other words, Fulmer probably won't do what Auburn's Tommy Tuberville did last year -- hire Al Borges and turn the offense over to him.

But Fulmer also understands unequivocally the importance of this hire and the importance of resuscitating the Vols' once vibrant offense.

He doesn't need to be reminded that he's just 8-14 against Auburn, Florida, Georgia and LSU since the 1998 national championship season and is looking at a seventh straight season without an SEC title.

And with Spurrier's arrival at South Carolina making an already tough Eastern Division that much tougher, there's less margin for error than ever.

Not to mention an uneasy air of restlessness in Big Orange Country.

Fulmer has shown a penchant for being able to deliver at his alma mater when everyone has counted him out. It's when he's done his best work.

Fulmer will need his best work these next 12 to 18 months -- or the next change we'll be talking about in the Tennessee program could involve him.

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