CATEGORY: FOC College Football

AUTHOR: PHELPS

HED:Gene Phelps: Dogs next to last roadblock in Vols title run

NASHVILLE -- Tennessee has one more exit on its road to the Fiesta Bowl and a possible national championship, but it's a dangerous one.

The Big Orange machine must make a pit stop at Atlanta's Georgia Dome for an SEC Championship game. Waiting to play a little indoor hardball at the Atlanta venue with the SEC's Eastern Division kingpin will be Mississippi State, the league's surprise Western Division champ.

The subplots are numerous for this matchup.

For example, you've got No. 1 verses No. 25. State's ranking could change, but don't expect to see the Vols' drop.

Some of the others are:

* Defending SEC champion verses school that hasn't won an SEC crown in 57 years.

* 11-0 verses 8-3.

* Phil Fulmer verses Jackie Sherrill.

* Tee Martin verses Wayne Madkin.

* Travis Henry verses James "J.J." Johnson.

* Peerless Price verses State's secondary.

* Constant Rocky Top verses what should be allowed for this one --constant cowbells.

And so on, and so on.

Both teams are primed and ready, and playing at peak performance at the right time of the season.

"Mississippi State's good; they beat Arkansas," said Tennessee's All-Everything wide receiver, Peerless Price. "They've got a good running game. I don't mean anything when I say this, but I hope James Johnson doesn't play (laugh)."

State's Johnson, the SEC's leading rusher with 1,345 yards, is battling groin and shoulder injuries that have limited his playing time the last two games. His status for the title game is day-by-day.

Mississippi State, even with limited play by Johnson -- 34 yards rushing, two touchdowns -- earned its division title and berth in the championship game with a 28-6 win Thanksgiving day over rival Ole Miss. A thrilling, last-second 22-21 upset of then No. 9 Arkansas the previous week pointed the Johnson-less Bulldogs on the path to Atlanta.

There wasn't as much suspense here Saturday. Tennessee wrapped up its division crown a week ago with a convincing 59-21 win over Tim Couch and Kentucky.

The top-ranked Vols barely broke a sweat against their in-state rival -- Vanderbilt. Tennessee fans turned 41,000-seat Vanderbilt Stadium into a sea of orange. On the green artificial playing field, the Vols bloodied the SEC's black and gold doormat 41-0.

Nobody can blame Tennessee for its sluggish start against Vandy. Two first-quarter trips into Commodore territory produced only a punt and a 22-yard field by Jeff Hall.

All it took though, was a big-time play by a big-time player to get the Vols rolling. Price hauled in a short strike from quarterback Tee Martin, slipped two tackles immediately after the catch, broke another one 10 yards later, and raced the remaining 67 yards for a touchdown. Price's points with 9 minutes, 8 seconds left in the second quarter gave Tennessee its wakeup call and a ... well, at least in this game ... a comfortable 10-0 lead.

"I ran a hitch and Tee got it to me," Price said. "I saw the cornerback coming at me and I saw the linebacker coming, too. He hit me, knocked me into the (cornerback) and I bounced off him. Then all I had to do was put a move on the safety."

Price, who had seven catches for 181 yards against Vandy, said he hopes the solid win keeps the Vols in the running for the Fiesta Bowl. While Tennessee is ranked No. 1 by the Associated Press, it's ranked No. 2 in the ESPN/USA Today coaches poll.

Of course the most crucial ranking is the one in the Bowl Championship Series poll. The Vols were No. 1 last week, but the BCS rankings, based on polls, computer rankings and strength of schedule, are subject to change. The BCS rankings will determine who plays in the Fiesta Bowl for the national championship.

"We've done our part, now the BCS has to do its part," Price said. "I don't think we did anything wrong today. Do you guys? We control our own destiny."

And for the Vols, their destiny wears maroon and white, and waits in Atlanta.

Gene Phelps is sports editor for the Daily Journal

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