Sunday, August 06, 2006

The 50 Best Vol Games 1989-2005: 40-36

40. 1997: #3 Tennessee 17 - Vanderbilt 10 (Knoxville, TN)
Vanderbilt sighting! The final hurdle before the Vols could make their first trip to Atlanta was one of Woody Widenhoffer's best Commodore teams. Woody frustrated Peyton Manning better than any other defensive coordinator, and the Vols stuck to Jamal Lewis and his 196 yards for most of the day. It would still take another Manning bootleg late in the 4th to put the Vols ahead for good. Though we used to take wins over the Dores for granted, once the Vols finally put this game away, the celebration was on, giving Tennessee its first SEC Eastern Division title in six tries. Most of the memories here come from Manning leading the band after the game, and then random on-field interviews with Leonard Little and Manning over the PA. Peyton Manning: "We just wanna say thank you from the bottom of our hearts for coming out here and supporting us, now let's go to Atlanta and get Auburn, let's go baby!" Crowd: HUGE pop.

39. 2001: #11 Tennessee 35 - Alabama 24 (Tuscaloosa, AL)
There was a sick feeling in the gut of Vol nation that started from the last :44 of the Georgia game and carried over for another 13 days. But nothing cures what ails ya like beating Alabama. And when it's the seventh consecutive victory, and no one has ever done that before, it's that much sweeter. As Donte' Stallworth returned to the Vol lineup after breaking his wrist in the season opener, he took the Vol offense to another level, catching a TD pass on the opening drive. Leading 7-3 in the second quarter, Travis Stephens broke off a sick 60 yard TD run on a 3rd and 1. But the story of this game was Casey Clausen. I've never seen a quarterback play like this in a competitive game with Alabama: 21 of 28, 293 yards, 2 TDs. Clausen shared the wealth, hitting Stallworth with 5 for 80, Kelley Washington with 4 for 93, and Jason Witten with 7 for 91, dragging Alabama's defense along the way. The Vols piled up a ridiculous 480 yards of offense, but the game still wasn't on ice until the 4th. Alabama also had a solid offensive day, with Santonio Beard busting the Vol D for 141 yards. His TD on the final play of the third quarter gave Alabama a 24-21 lead. From there, Tennessee dominated the 4th quarter to perfection. Taking the kickoff, the Vols went on a 17 play, 84 yard drive, finishing with a Clausen TD. On Alabama's next drive, the Tide went three and out. After the punt, the Vols went 72 yards in 10 plays for another score. On Alabama's next drive, the Tide went three and out. The Alabama offense ran six plays in the 4th quarter. The Vols owned the last fifteen minutes, took the game, and capped off seven great Third Saturdays, something we'll probably never see again.

38. 1999: #5 Tennessee 21 - #10 Alabama 7 (Tuscaloosa, AL)
The last nationally meaningful Tennessee-Alabama game. The first time the game had been moved to Tuscaloosa from Birmingham, played on the campus of the University of Alabama. The Tide had suffered disappointing seasons in 1997 and 1998, but behind Shaun Alexander, Bama was national news and poised to make a run to the BCS. Alexander was a legitimate Heisman candidate, going against a Vol defense that was yet to allow a rushing touchdown. In front of the largest crowd to ever see a football game in the state of Alabama, Alexander got his TD early on a screen pass to put Alabama up 7-0. From there, Tennessee took over. Tee Martin, playing in front of friends and family, scored on a QB draw in the second quarter, but suffered a knee injury on the play. As the game went to halftime in a 7-7 draw, Vol fans wondered if Martin would return. In fact, Joey Matthews played one series in this game before Tee was able to return. When he did, he torched the Bama secondary on a bomb to give the Vols the lead. Late in the third quarter, the play that defined the day saw Andrew Zow escape pressure and find a wide, wide, wide open Shaun Alexander downfield...and the ball glanced off his fingertips, dropping the game-tying touchdown. In the 4th, Martin scored again on a QB draw and put the game away, 21-7. This secured the fifth straight victory over the Tide, ended Alexander's Heisman candidacy, and put the Vols in contention for the National Championship. In the coming weeks, the Vols would be upset by Arkansas, Alabama would win the West, and then the Tide destroyed Florida in the SEC Championship to win the conference.

37. 1999: #4 Tennessee 38 - #24 Notre Dame 14 (Knoxville, TN)
...but before losing that game to Arkansas, the Vols hosted the Irish on a November Saturday night in Knoxville. ESPN GameDay returned to Knoxville for the first time since 1996 for this contest. At this point, Tennessee had vaulted undefeated Virginia Tech in the BCS to move to #2 in the standings, in line for a rematch with Florida State to defend the National Championship. This game marked the final Saturday of the Vols being in the national title picture every week, somewhere they had been since the latter parts of the 1997 season. And it was a great way to end, dominating a cocky Notre Dame team in the teams' first meeting since The Miracle at South Bend in 1991. Irish QB Jarious Jackson led Notre Dame into Vol territory on the opening drive, but Raynoch Thompson got a pick off a deflection to end the threat. Leading 3-0 in the second quarter, Martin found Donte' Stallworth to make it a two score game. After the Irish broke the plane for the first rushing touchdown allowed by UT's defense all year, Tee Martin ran the two minute drill to perfection, and fired an absolute laser into traffic to Eric Parker with :09 left in the half to give the Vols a 17-7 advantage (in watching the highlights again, I totally forgot about Will Overstreet murdering Jackson when Notre Dame tried to run a hail mary at the end of the half). In the third quarter, Tee Martin again showed why he has the best deep ball of all UT quarterbacks, finding Leonard Scott, who beat two defensive backs and came to a stop nine yards deep in the end zone to haul in the TD on a teardrop from heaven, almost 70 yards in the air. After the Irish tried to run the option on a fake punt and were denied, Travis Henry went 40 yards into the heart of the Irish defense for a score. This game also featured one of the biggest BS calls I've ever seen in person, awarding an ND wideout a TD on a reverse when he was out of bounds at almost the three yard line. Notre Dame used that momentum to drive to the Vol 9 on their next drive, but were denied on 4th and 2. From there, the Vols went the length of the field and Tee Martin bootlegged for the final score. Absolute dominance, 38-14.

36. 1997: #9 Tennessee 38 - #13 Georgia 13 (Knoxville, TN)
You know it's good if they make a painting of it. By this time in Manning's career, the second biggest game on the Vols' slate was Georgia, not Alabama. After falling to the Gators, the Vols had unleashed Jamal Lewis on Ole Miss the previous week with 155 yards. But that was only the warm up. This was the "Give the Ball to Jamal" game, and against his home state, Lewis uncorked a staggering 232 yards, which still ranks 7th all time at UT. Jamal made the Georgia defense look like little boys, though he was probably younger than all of them. Manning was equal to the task, in what could be deemed his last great home game. Peyton put up 343 yards against Georgia, and this contest was never close. This was the first of three consecutive seasons that Georgia was undefeated coming into the Tennessee game, and the first of three consecutive losses of at least three possessions. This one became more memorable as Manning passed for a final TD in the 4th quarter to put the Vols ahead 38-13, which then-Georgia coach Jim Donnan didn't agree with. He cussed Fulmer in the worst way at the postgame handshake, in front of his daughter. The next year, without Manning, on the road, and again facing an undefeated Georgia team, this time as underdogs, Fulmer wouldn't forget that...stay tuned.

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