TAMPA - Phillip Fulmer stepped to the podium and graciously accepted the Outback Bowl trophy.
No. 16 Tennessee overcame injuries, academic suspensions, and the impending departure of two key assistant coaches to beat No. 18 Wisconsin, 21-17, yesterday for the Volunteers' first 10-win season since 2004.
"We've been waiting a couple of years to get one of these," the Tennessee coach said after the Vols (10-4) erased unpleasant memories of a loss to Penn State in last year's Outback game and also stopped Wisconsin from becoming only the second Big Ten team to beat Southeastern Conference opponents in three consecutive bowl appearances.
Fulmer's next order of business is replacing offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe, who has accepted the head coaching job at Duke, and receivers coach Trooper Taylor, who's leaving to become co-offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State.
"I'm excited about where we are, and I'm even more excited about where we're headed, even with the staff changes," Fulmer said. "I think that gives us a chance to even be excited about something new and different. I'm looking forward to it."
Erik Ainge threw for 365 yards and two touchdowns in his final game for the Vols, who also got a stellar performance from a defense that has improved dramatically since early-season losses to California and Florida.
A month after having an interception returned for the winning score in a 21-14 loss to LSU in the SEC championship game, Ainge completed 25 of 43 passes without a turnover to win MVP honors. Ainge conceded that finishing his career on a winning note was big, even if the Vols fell short of loftier goals.
"That's big - winning and losing games," the quarterback said. "If anybody ever says that that's not everything, they're lying. Because if we had done everything we did and lost, we wouldn't be feeling like we feel right now."