Sunday, August 13, 2006

The 50 Best Vol Games 1989-2005: 25-21

Here we go with the Top 25...

25. 2001: #8 Tennessee 45 - #17 Michigan 17 (Citrus Bowl)
Under any other circumstances, this matchup would've been ridiculously anticipated and sold out from Knoxville to Ann Arbor. In reality, the Vols had just been from the top of the mountain to the bottom of the valley in seven days, from beating Florida in The Swamp for the first time in 30 years to move to #2 in the polls, to losing their shot at the National Championship to a battered LSU team in the second half in Atlanta in only seven days. So even this mouth-watering matchup with Charles Woodson's alma mater didn't seem like much reward. Even on the morning of January 1, I can remember thinking about the upcoming Miami-Nebraska Rose Bowl, or thinking about watching LSU in the Sugar Bowl, and felt sick. Then the telecast came on, and ABC opened with a shot of a Michigan fan holding up a sign that said something to the effect of "WOODSON: BETTER THEN, BETTER NOW." And I was ready. And good grief, so were the Vols. After taking a 3-0 lead on the opening drive, John Henderson recovered a John Navarre fumble, and the Casey Clausen tour de force was on. He tossed his first of two TDs to Kelley Washington to make it 10-0. Next drive, Clausen to Donte' Stallworth to the one yard line, where #7 snuck it in on the following play. When Michigan scored to make it 17-7, the Vols squashed the momentum with another Stallworth catch at the one and another Clausen TD run to make it 24-7. If the Wolverines wanted momentum after halftime, a 64 yard TD to Jason Witten killed it. Next drive, Clausen to Kelley Washington on a screen pass, and K-Dub went 37 yards to make it 38-7. Next Michigan drive, Navarre is picked off by Jabari Greer, Travis Stephens scores, and the Vols lead 45-7 in the third quarter. Dogs were called off, Michigan scored 10 points on the scrubs for the final score - but sweet Lord, this was the ultimate woodshed job. And it only gets more satisfying with time. Clausen went 26 of 34 for 393 yards - statistically, the best game of his UT career. This being the only meeting between these two proud institutions, the bragging rights are 110% in Knoxville. Hail to the victors.

24. 1995: #8 Tennessee 30 - Georgia 27 (Knoxville, TN)
If this list were highlighting the most exciting, closest or well played (on both sides) games since 1989, this one would be in the Top 5 easily. With Peyton Manning entering his first season as the definitive Vol starting quarterback, Georgia came to Knoxville with a very talented, very hungry football team, featuring young Mike Bobo at quarterback, Robert Edwards at tailback, and an underrated defense. Georgia took the opening kickoff and went 80 yards against the Vol defense for a 7-0 lead. Tennessee went 80 yards on their opening drive, capped by an 8 yard scramble from Manning (the longest eight yards in the history of Tennessee football). Manning's first TD pass put the Vols on top 14-7 in the second quarter, but the first half story was Robert Edwards. The Georgia tailback dominated the Vol D in a way I haven't seen any opposing running back do, and it's not even close. Edwards had 125+ yards in the first half...then broke his leg and was lost for the rest of the game and the season. And with that, everything changed. The Vol D had open season on Mike Bobo for the second half, and Georgia was slowed. Still, the Dawgs had managed - thanks to an untimely Manning interception - a 24-20 lead late in the 3rd quarter. Manning hit Joey Kent from 21 yards out with :30 left in the third to put the Vols back ahead 27-24. Another Vol turnover gave Georgia's offense one more chance - the Dawgs drove into the red zone but could not punch it in, settling for a tying field goal at 27-27 with just over 2:00 to play. In 1995, there was no such thing as overtime, so the downfield march of the Vols was absolutely critical. With 90 seconds to play from their own 30, David Cutcliffe called the screen pass, and Jay Graham picked up 35 yards to get closer. Tennessee would eventually move to the 15, with :15 to play and faced with 4th down. At this point, the greatest kicker in Tennessee history was arguably John Becksvoort, who'd just graduated. So on marches true freshman Jeff Hall, from 32 yards out, to save a win. And Hall couldn't have hit it more true.

23. 1992: #20 Tennessee 34 - #14 Georgia 31 (Athens, GA)
One better in the exciting games list was this contest, the first SEC contest under the new divisional format in 1992, meaning the Tennessee-Georgia game/rivalry had become tremendously important overnight. Andy Kelly had graduated, leaving the reigns to Heath Shuler. Johnny Majors had been in the hospital, leaving Phil Fulmer to lead the troops in the interim. With or without Majors, this was supposed to be a rebuilding year. Traveling to Athens for game two (and unveiling the all-white road uniforms for the first time), the Vols were heavy, heavy underdogs (two touchdowns) against an absolutely loaded Georgia team that featured Eric Zeier, Garrison Hearst, and Andre Hastings. Georgia fumbled the opening kickoff, the Vols recovered but could not get a TD, settling for a field goal. The two teams then traded kicks before Georgia scored to make it 10-6. When the Vols got a late second quarter touchdown and what looked like momentum, Hastings hauled in a bomb from Zeier to put Georgia on top 17-13 going to the locker room, and it looked like any chance of stealing a win just went out the door. Instead, the Vols opened the second half with fire, scoring two third quarter touchdowns and opening up a 27-17 lead. Back came Georgia's high powered offense, with two Hearst TDs, and the Dawgs were back in front 31-27. Heath Shuler had been running and passing, and had taken some licks from the UGA defense already. He would finish the day as the team's leading rusher - quite a feat on a team with James Stewart, Aaron Hayden, Charlier Garner and Mose Phillips - but it would be his young arm that needed to come through on 4th and 13 at the UGA 40 with 2:15 to play. Shuler found Ronald Davis for 18 yards and the first down, and would run it in himself for the go ahead a few plays later. Georgia wasn't finished - with time outs and two first downs, they needed a field goal to tie. But the Dawgs fumbled and Tennessee recovered, sealing the victory and gaining national respect for Shuler, the team, and Fulmer.

22. 1990: #5 Tennessee 45 - #9 Florida 3 (Knoxville, TN)
For those of you who might be too young to remember, or weren't following back then, I'm truly sorry for you - because I doubt you'll ever get this kind of chance with the Gators again. In year one of the Steve Spurrier administration in Gainesville, the Gators came to Knoxville to face a Tennessee team that had, in five previous games, played eventual National Champion and then #5 Colorado to a 31-31 tie in the first ever Pigskin Classic, then won three straight, then tied #3 Auburn on The Plains 26-26. So the Vols were in the Top 5 and had a record of 3-0-2 - very strange to say the least. The Auburn game had ended poorly, with the Vols blowing a 26-9 4th quarter lead and then missing a game-winning field goal. Bad tastes abounded. So after an off week, and with ESPN in town on my 9th birthday, the Vols needed to feel better about themselves. The first half didn't really do it - the Vols led 7-3 at halftime. But Dale Carter changed all that on the second half kickoff, racing it back 90 yards. Floodgates: open. On the next UT drive, Tony Thompson ran it in from 23 yards out. On the next UT drive, the Vols ran a trick play, using a tight end on the end around who passed to a wide open Carl Pickens. On the next Florida drive, the Vols intercepted Shane Matthews and ran it back for a TD. Bang, bang, bang, bang, 28 points in the 3rd quarter, and suddenly it was 35-3. Dale Carter also netted two interceptions, and the Vols even ran up the score a little bit - something that Spurrier was fond of reminding people of in years to come - en route to 38 straight points in the second half and a 45-3 victory. Happy Birthday to me.

21. 1998: #3 Tennessee 35 - Alabama 18 (Knoxville, TN)
The National Championship season included a memorable victory over the Crimson Tide in Knoxville. Bama was struggling in 98 but had a young running back named Shaun Alexander who was making some noise. Tennessee opened a 14-3 lead behind Tee Martin and Travis Henry early, but couldn't pull away. In the third quarter, Alexander went right through the middle of the Tennessee defense for a long TD, Bama got the two, and suddenly it was 14-11. And if there was anybody who wanted to end Tennessee's undefeated season, it was these guys. Enter Peerless Price. Returning kicks for the first time all year, Price raced 100 yards back down the sideline to end the threat. Tennessee scored on its next two drives, again behind Martin and Henry, and put the Tide away 35-18. Always fond to look back on beating Alabama in your most memorable season.

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