Between now and kickoff on September 2, I'll be unveiling my picks for the 50 Best Tennessee Football Games from 1989-2005 - a period I've refered to before as the "modern era", but it really also covers the period of time I've been attending UT football games, old enough to remember them, with many apologies to the 5-6 forgettable 1988 season.
This is my list, of course, so there will be some personal biases in here. This is a list of the most memorable, my favorite games - not the ones with the greatest individual performances, not limited to only the ones I've seen live, not a list of the most important wins, and not a ranking of the best actual games played on the field. So while the 41-14 win over Alabama in 1995 certainly wasn't a down-to-the-wire affair, you'll find it quite high on this list. And while the five and six overtime games will be making an appearance in the Top 50, they won't be numbers one and two, respectively, simply because of their length and the roller coaster of emotions that went along with them. The list is also slightly weighted towards a game's impact on the rest of that particular season, which is why a game like last year's LSU contest isn't as high as you might think it should be.
We'll go five at a time over the course of the next four weeks - along the way, share some stories if you remember where you were or what you thought/felt during each of these games, leave some comments.
It should be noted that usually I do a Top 10 of one of these lists every year, but we've been doing this so long that the list could easily become a Top 20 without me breaking a sweat. So in researching this piece yesterday, a flood of memories came in with other games, and the proposed Top 20 became a Top 25...and then it got too difficult to narrow the field, so we're just going with all of them.
All stats and information comes from the University of Tennessee media guide. Vol Network home videos - most notably Decade of Dominance - were also consulted to help visualize the experience.
To begin, when I was initially making the list for a proposed Top 25, 56 games were considered from 1989-2005. As the list grew to Top 50, here are the six also-noteworthy games that just missed the cut, in chronological order:
- The 1991 season opener, first-ever ESPN Thursday Night game, at Louisville. Carl Pickens becomes a Heisman candidate, the Vols break QB Jeff Brohm's leg, and fans are introduced to James Stewart and Aaron Hayden for the first time, as both true freshmen run for over 100 yards in a 28-11 win.
- Two years later in Knoxville, the return bout, as the #13 Cardinals come to Neyland Stadium looking to make a national name for themselves against the #7 Vols. Final score: 45-10. Oops.
- One of the lone bright spots from the 1994 season, a 10-9 victory over Washington State that may've saved the season, as Nilo Silvan scores the game's only touchdown on a long reverse.
- The 1995 Kentucky game that saw the #4 Vols fall behind 31-13 in the third quarter in Lexington before rallying to a 34-31 win.
- A 30-24 victory in Pasadena over UCLA in 1997 with the Vols ranked #3 that came down to the wire.
- The 23-20 overtime victory over South Carolina in Knoxville in 2003, finished with a Casey Clausen to James Banks connection in the first OT for instant victory.
Without further ado, I present my absolute favorite blog to write:
The 50 Best Vol Games 1989-2005
50. 1993: #8 Tennessee 55 - South Carolina 3 (Knoxville, TN)
The Steve Tanneyhill revenge game. If you're old enough to remember the roller coaster of 1992, when the Vols were ranked #22 in the preseason, then vaulted all the way to #4 by mid-October and had locked up the SEC East by stunning Georgia and Florida (you'll hear about those games as we go), then the team lost a heartbreaker to Arkansas and lost to eventual national champion Alabama by a touchdown. The Vols could still win the East, all they had to do was win at South Carolina. Instead, the Gamecocks won 24-23, led by a mulletted quarterback named Steve Tanneyhill, who is still one of the five biggest trash talkers I've ever seen. The loss was the final nail in Johnny Majors' coffin. One year later, the Vols had just tied Alabama in another gut wrencher, then had an off week, giving them 14 days to think about it. And there was no better medicine than another shot at Tanneyhill and the Cocks. South Carolina took the opening kickoff and drove the length of the field against a Vol defense that wasn't awake. With the ball at the one yard line, Tanneyhill tried to run a QB draw...when he dove for the end zone, he was absolutely leveled by two Vol defenders and did a 270-degree spin in mid air, never crossing the plain. Carolina settled for a field goal, which was promptly blocked, and the rout was on. Once Charlie Garner had ran for 105 yards, they put in James "Little Man" Stewart, who picked up an additional 113. One of the most enjoyable blowouts I've ever experienced.
49. 1994: Tennessee 45 - #17 Virginia Tech 23 (Gator Bowl)
Tennessee had struggled in 1994, but by the time this bowl game rolled around on December 30, the offense had confidence in true freshman Peyton Manning. On the Vols' first drive, Manning hit Joey Kent on a tremendous diving catch, and later fired a touchdown pass. On Tech's first drive, Jim Druckenmiller threw an interception. Tech was never close again. What I've gained a larger appreciation for, now living in Virginia Tech territory, is what a big deal this game was to the fans back then. Even with the Vols at 7-4 and unranked at the time, this was VT's big chance to make national noise, finish in the Top 15 and knock off the program to their west that they live in constant fear of, that the Vols will steal their fan base as soon as Tech has an off year. This game meant the world to Virginia Tech - that's why they want to play us in Bristol so badly - and the Vols smoked the Hokies without a second thought; beating Virginia Tech was no big deal to us. I enjoy reminding people here of that fact when they get a little too loud. Playing the game in The Swamp while Jacksonville's new stadium was being built, James Stewart ran for 3 TDs in his final game as a Vol and was named MVP, Tennessee scored 35 points in the first half, and so begins and ends the only chapter in the modern day Tennessee-Virginia Tech story.
48. 1994: #19 Tennessee 41 - #23 Georgia 23 (Athens, GA)
Of all the times we beat Georgia from 1989-1999, this is the one that never should've happened. Having just lost Jerry Colquitt to a knee injury and the game to UCLA the week before, the season was in serious jeopardy, and Georgia was smelling blood, playing at home. The starting quarterback for this game was Todd Helton. But there was simply no need to pass, as James Stewart and the offensive line took over the game and dominated from start to finish. Little Man ran for 211 yards, 4 TDs (ties the UT record), and a 71 yard tackle-breaking affair that still ranks as one of the five best runs I've ever seen by a Tennessee back. The Vols were totally one dimentional and it made no difference, pounding Georgia and proving that they were still going to contend in 1994. Despite losing to Florida and Mississippi State in the weeks ahead, this game gave fans hope that the Vols could still fight without Colquitt.
47. 1996: #9 Tennessee 48 - #11 Northwestern 28 (Citrus Bowl)
It what the majority believed to be Peyton Manning's final game, the Vols had fully recovered from the Memphis hangover in time to dominate the Big 10 co-champions and win their second straight Citrus Bowl. The Vols came out firing, jumping to a 21-0 lead behind a 43 yard TD to Peerless Price, and one of Manning's signature naked bootlegs - this one covering a massive 10 yards. When the Vols let up, Northwestern rolled to 21 straight points of its own to tie the game in the second quarter behind the legs of Darnell Autry. When the Vols woke up for good, the game was over. From the 21-21 tie, the Vols outscored the Wildcats 27-7 the rest of the way, with Manning hitting senior Joey Kent for one last TD. Kent finished with 122 yards, but Manning led the charge by throwing for 408 yards, which still stands as the third best total (and third best personal total for Manning) in Tennessee history. As Manning was relieved and the game drew to a close, fans in the stands chanted for "one more year!" Manning played along, and the best news was yet to come just three months later.
46. 1999: #7 Tennessee 24 - Auburn 0 (Knoxville, TN)
The Vols lost their unbeaten streak at Florida and played terribly the following week against Memphis. So here comes your old rival Auburn, in K-Town for the first time since 1991, for a night game. Nobody really knows what to expect. First play: Deon Grant intercepts an out pattern and races it back for a touchdown for the throat-slasher. And it would in fact end up being enough, but it was only the first of three interceptions for Grant in one of the best individual defensive performances I've ever seen. His three picks ties a UT record, and he would finish the season with an NCAA-leading 9. This is also the game where Cedrick Wilson emerged as Tee Martin's go-to guy for the rest of the season, picking up 112 yards. This also marked the beginning of the transition from Jamal Lewis to Travis Henry. All in all a dominate performance from the Vols, and our first truly memorable experience in the UT student section.
More to come, stay tuned...again, feel free to share stories, memories, or anything else in the comments.