Friday, August 11, 2006

The 50 Best Vol Games 1989-2005: 30-26

Today, we keep it old school for three in a row (read on for some history if you weren't following back then), then close with something more recent as we finish the first half of the countdown and move towards the Top 25...

(note: pictures are not working on Blogger right now, so I went ahead and posted it - will try to add later)

30. 1989: Tennessee 24 - #6 UCLA 6 (Pasadena, CA)
If you're looking for the genesis of the "modern era", here it is. Some background information: when Johnny Majors took over the Vol program in 1977, the Vols hadn't won the SEC since 1969, and hadn't fielded a 9+ win team since 1972 (those were back in the Phil Fulmer/Gaylon Hill offensive line days). Majors came in and suffered through a 4-7 campaign in his first season, the worst record in Tennessee football history. In his early tenure, the Vols continued a losing streak to Alabama which eventually mounted to 11 consecutive defeats, and the Vols had two separate four year periods of not being ranked at all. The beloved 1985 season is compared by many to Bruce Pearl's first year, because it was completely unexpected and came on the heels of all of this. After winning the SEC in 1985, the Vols also posted 10 wins in 1987 and won the Peach Bowl. But in 1988, the team started the season ranked 18th...and then lost its first six games. The Vols would rebound to finish 5-6, but outside of the miracle 85 season, any glimmer of hope of building a nationally competitive program in Knoxville seemed lost. So when the Vols opened the 1989 season, expectations were low and the Vols were unranked. In the season opener, the Vols beat Colorado State 17-14 thanks to a failed 4th down conversion on CSU's final drive. You get the idea. So the following week, Tennessee travels to #6 UCLA. It's a pay per view contest and a west coast night game, meaning the kickoff in Knoxville falls around 10:30 PM. I had to beg my parents to let me stay awake, and I remember my dad's sentiment being something like "we'll let him stay awake until UCLA opens up a big enough lead." And what happened next started all the success we enjoy. On the Bruins' opening drive, they had a 4th and inches at midfield, decided to go for it, and didn't make it...and everything changed. With Sterling Henton playing quarterback and Reggie Cobb out for the game, a young freshman named Chuck Webb was given the reigns. He responded with touchdowns on the Vols' first two possessions, and Tennessee would never look back. Webb finished with 134 yards and would begin to write his name into UT lore. Sterling Henton - who would lose his job to Andy Kelly's passing abilities in the coming weeks - played his best game as a Vol and ran for a score. The Vol defense simply dominated UCLA's offense, which fell behind and couldn't rely on the ground attack. The game wasn't over until after 1:00 AM, but when it was finished, the Vols had shocked UCLA 24-6, and suddenly Tennessee was making national noise. This is where it started, after midnight in the Rose Bowl.

29. 1989: #12 Tennessee 21 - #4 Auburn 14 (Knoxville, TN)
And this is where you knew it was real. A win over Duke and an open date after beating UCLA, and the Vols were suddenly ranked 12th. And back in these days, let me tell you, Auburn was a big, big deal. There was no Florida, there was no Georgia - the Vols didn't play those teams every year. Alabama has always been the crown jewel, but Auburn was the red-headed stepchild rivalry for both schools. You can still find t-shirts that read "The Only Thing Alabama & Auburn Fans Agree On: Nothing Sucks Like a Big Orange." The rivalry had been kicked up another notch in 1985 when Auburn was #1 and came to Knoxville with Bo Jackson, only to be throttled by the unranked Vols 38-20. Since then, Auburn won in 86, we tied in 87, and Auburn smoked the Vols 38-6 in 1988. In a downpour at Neyland Stadium, Tennessee got 14 points the hard way early: twice, the Auburn punter mishandled the snap deep in his own territory for two safeties. A field goal and touchdown later, the Vols were in business. The CobbWebb attack was born on this day. With Reggie Cobb fully healthy (and playing in what would be his next to last game as a Vol before being kicked off for substance abuse), he led the charge with some of the most impressive highlight reel runs I've ever seen. Cobb finished the day with 225 yards against a great Auburn defense. Auburn's QB was Reggie Slack - and so the chant of "RE-GGIE! RE-GGIE!" RE-GGIE!" alternated between Vol and Tiger sections throughout the game. When Reggie Slack fired a bomb to tie the score in the 4th quarter at 14, Andy Kelly responded by launching one to freshman Carl Pickens. The win moved Tennessee into the Top 10, where they would peak at #6 before losing to Alabama (when playing without Reggie Cobb for the first time). The Vols wouldn't lose again, finishing the season 11-1, SEC Champions, and ranked 5th.

28. 1991: #5 Tennessee 30 - #13 Auburn 21 (Knoxville, TN)
Two years later, and imagine if they suddenly said "hey, Tennessee and Florida, you're not going to play each other every year anymore. In fact, you'll only see each other twice in a decade from now on." That's what this was like back in 91, when the upcoming divisional format was announced, meaning the Vols and Tigers wouldn't play again until 1998 (or so we thought at the time; the two schools would meet a year earlier in Atlanta). So everyone in the stadium wanted this one badly, especially after the 26-26 tie on The Plains the year earlier. This game was the Andy Kelly and Carl Pickens show. Kelly would finish with 355 yards and 3 TDs, with 172 yards and 2 of them going to Pickens, who - as perhaps the most effective trash talker in UT history - pointed at the Auburn DBs three steps behind him all game long. Every time Auburn would get close in the second half, the Vols scored again. A tremendous, taking-it-away-from-the-receiver interception by Dale Carter helped keep the Vols ahead. The feeling of celebration and closure at the end of this one was incredible, and I would've hated to lose this game. Auburn still stands as the only other SEC school besides Alabama to own a winning record over Tennessee. I miss these guys.

27. 2004: #15 Tennessee 38 - #22 Texas A&M 7 (Cotton Bowl)
The wild ride of the 2004 season had taken a late turn southward, between Erik Ainge's injury and the subsequent loss to Notre Dame, and a hard fought loss in the SEC Championship to the undefeated Auburn Tigers. Having lost two consecutive Peach Bowls before this one, this program badly needed a good taste in its mouth. With Rick Clausen at the helm, no one was expecting much more than a grind it out performance against an explosive A&M offense, and the hope that we could pull it out with defense and the running game. What happened instead was the last time in a long time that the Vols have simply dominated a good opponent. Everybody played well, sparked by the Vol defense that created turnovers from Reggie McNeal and others, early and often. Justin Harrell's work would earn him the Defensive MVP honors, and while Gerald Riggs ran for 102 yards, it would be Clausen who earned Offensive MVP awards for leading this team to victory. Beating Dennis Franchoine was an added bonus, but this win made everybody feel good about the 04 season, and drove expectations to new hights for the 05 campaign...

26. 2003: #12 Tennessee 24 - #17 Florida 10 (Gainesville, FL)
The wild ride of the Vols-Gators rivalry had seen some classic moments since the Vols turned the series around in 1998. Since then, Tennessee had picked up its only additional victory in 2001, its first in Gainesville in 30 years. When it looked like the Vols were ready to take control of the series in the post-Spurrier era, Florida shocked Tennessee 30-13 in a Knoxville downpour in Ron Zook's first year. So returning to The Swamp in 2003, the Florida fans were eager to take a bite out of Casey Clausen and the Vols, still rebounding from a shaky 8-5 2002 season. Many Florida players expressed their displeasure at "Mr. Clausen directing the band" after the 01 win at The Swamp. But Florida's early bite was reduced, thanks to a heartbreaking loss to Miami to open the season. The Vols were 2-0, but that was against Fresno State and Marshall, and those weren't all that pretty. So at high noon from Gainesville, no one really knew what to expect. In watching the 03 DVD again this morning, the sweat was working on Fulmer in the pregame speech. Casey Clausen was 10-0 on the road at this point, but both defenses would make all the plays in the first half. The largest crowd in Florida history witnessed physical football early as the Gators rotated quarterbacks Ingle Martin and Chris Leak and took a 3-0 lead. Chris Leak was baptized by fire by the Vol D early on, sacked by Kevin Simon in the first quarter. Mark Jones made a diving interception on an out pattern with the Gators approaching the red zone to end another drive. Brandon Johnson stripped the ball loose on another drive in the second quarter. In the first half, the Gators moved the ball inside the Tennessee 35 4 times, and got only 3 points. Tennessee took over at their own 40 with :16 left in the first half, got 15 yards from Cedric Houston on the screen pass, and then went to the roseary. You see the hail mary work sometimes on SportsCenter, but never with the Vols...until this. A teardrop into a crowd of 8 people was tipped once and fell right into the hands of James Banks, changing everything about the game. Parys Haralson picked up a sack to end Florida's first drive of the half. Playing now without an injured Cedric Houston, more pressure fell to Clausen, who picked up a first on a 4th and 1 QB sneak, then scrambled for 11 yards ("He runs like a gazelle!" - Bobbitt) on 3rd and 2 for another first down. This set up James Wilhoit from 51 yards to push the lead to 10-3. Florida stalled again (this drive featuring Rashad Baker doing pushups on field after dropping an INT), setting up Clausen to freshman Bret Smith for 55 yards to the one. Jabari Davis (6 TDs in The Swamp in 2 games) punched it in from there, and suddenly the Vols were up 14 with only a minute left in the 3rd. Florida scored early in the 4th to make it 17-10. With James Banks, Tony Brown, and Mark Jones drawing most of the heat from Florida DBs, Clausen found the then-young Jayson Swain and Chris Hannon to move the drive into Gator territory. Jabari Davis scored once more from the 9 to make it 24-10 with 8:40 remaining. Florida moved inside the 35 again, and Jason Allen got away with a bigtime pass interference no-call to score an interception. When the Vols turned it back over, the defense held on 4th down to secure the victory. An outstanding team victory.

Up next...the Top 25.

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