Thursday, August 24, 2006

The 50 Best Vol Games 1989-2005: Top 15 08. Draining The Swamp

8. 2001: #5 Tennessee 34 - #2 Florida 32 (Gainesville, FL)
The story of this game begins on September 11, when the attack on NY/DC postponed the game until December 1. At that point in time, Donte' Stallworth had a broken wrist, John Henderson had a sprained ankle, and Earnest Graham did not. Florida was the preseason #1 in the AP poll in 2001.

After the Vols returned to action and beat LSU, they rose to #6 in the polls. On October 7, Georgia stunned the Vols in the final minute to win 26-24, breaking the Vols hearts and sending them downward to 13th in the poll. The following week, Florida lost 23-20 at Auburn. The climb back to the national championship picture would seem steep for both teams.

The Vols began to pick up ground quickly, thanks to their schedule. They rose to 9th after beating Alabama, then to 7th after beating South Carolina as November rolled around. Florida continued to roll, beating Georgia to move back into the Top 5 and set up the SEC East showdown on December 1.

When the calendar moved to November, the Vols were still at #7 with Miami and Nebraska both undefeated, and nine other one-loss teams still playing. There seemed no point in thinking about anything other than the SEC race. Then, as it has been so many times, November started being good to the Vols. On the first weekend, Michigan State upset Michigan to move the Vols to #6 as UT won at Notre Dame. But two weeks later, no one above them had lost, and the Vols found themselves sliding back down to #7 after the November 17 games, passed by Oregon after narrowly beating Kentucky. The Vols were ranked 7th with only one week of football left. It seemed totally impossible to get back into the race.

It started on the day after Thanksgiving. #2 Nebraska traveled to #14 Colorado, to face the rivals they'd beaten every year for almost a decade. And what Colorado did to Nebraska that day, the program still hasn't recovered from. I was driving back from Memphis when I heard the score on the radio: "Second quarter, Colorado 28 - Nebraska 0" and I almost wrecked my car, literally. By the time it was over, Colorado won 62-36, and the dominoes were falling.

The next day, as the Vols shut out Vanderbilt, unranked Oklahoma State went into Norman and stunned #4 Oklahoma 16-13. Suddenly, the Vols were #5. Miami's 65-7 thrashing of Washington (this team was really, really, really good) kept them at #1. But on the morning of December 1, the Gators were #2, Texas #3, and Oregon #4. And after Florida, the BCS margin between Texas, Oregon, and the Vols was razor thin. If the Vols could pull off the upset in Gainesville, they would leap Oregon without question in the BCS, and it would be real close with Texas...

December 1, 2001 is one of my favorite football days of all time. #1 Miami would play at #14 Virginia Tech. The SEC rescheduled games were played, and while the Vols and Gators would collide for the SEC Eastern Division title, LSU and Auburn would face off to determine the SEC West title. Oregon would play Oregon State in the Civil War. And the Big 12 Championship Game went on as scheduled, sending #3 Texas against suddenly red-hot Colorado. The opportunity was there for the Vols...really, the opportunity was there for everybody.

Standing in their way was arguably the most talented Florida team the Vols have ever faced, though without Earnest Graham. At this point, Rex Grossman was a Heisman frontrunner, competing with Ken Dorsey and Eric Crouch. He was throwing to Jabar Gaffney, Reche Caldwell, Taylor Jacobs and Carlos Perez. The offensive line featured Mike Pearson, Zac Zedalis, and Max Starks. On defense, the Gators led with infamous Alex Brown at end, with Ian Scott and Tron LaFavor at tackles. The linebackers were especially nasty, with Andra Davis and Mike Nattiel. And the loaded secondary featured Lito Sheppard, Keiwan Ratliff, Marquand Manuel, Guss Scott, and Todd Johnson. Oh yeah, and your head coach of the Florida Gators: Steve Spurrier.

But this wasn't just any Tennessee team either. By this point, Casey Clausen was a veteran, and Travis Stephens had been in the running for the Doak Walker award until being slowed by Notre Dame and the Vols' inability to run after falling behind 21-0 to Kentucky. With Donte' Stallworth, Kelley Washington, and Jason Witten lining up with an offensive line featuring Fred Weary and Scott Wells. The Vols fielded their best defensive line ever, with Will Overstreet, John Henderson, and Albert Haynesworth playing in front of Eddie Moore, Dominique Stevenson and Keyon Whiteside. Andre Lott, Jabari Greer, Julian Battle and Rashad Baker filled out the secondary. In short: clash of the titans.

The feature piece on ESPN GameDay (live from Gainesville) was about Gaffney and Caldwell, supposedly the best 1-2 receiver combination in America. But Stallworth-Washington was right up there with them, no doubt. And these two defenses were equally fierce. This should have been an even match, with the Gators getting the advantage because Tennessee hadn't won in The Swamp since 1971, going 0-7 in 30 years. So yeah, Florida should've been the favorite. Nobody was surprised when the Vols were underdogs.

18 points though, was a bit ridiculous.

There was no way that this team should've been 18 point underdogs to anybody. It's hard to imagine Florida and Tennessee ever playing where someone is an 18 point dog. The last three contests had been decided by 3 (in overtime), 2, and 4. Two top five teams should never be separated by 18 points. And yet, that's what you had.

And you had motivation in Knoxville.

As the Vols pulled out of K-Town, the words on the mouths and hearts of Vol nation were "We Believe." You found it on billboards on I-40, on convenience store marquees, it was everywhere. Screw 18 points, forget what Kentucky's passing game did to our secondary just 14 days ago...we believe.

In 1999, the Vols played in The Swamp for the first time in 30 years without fear. They traded it for arrogance and were beaten. In 2001, the Vols remained fearless but tempered it with blue collar determination. The Vols hit the field and essentially told Florida to buckle up - this one was going sixty minutes.

Crowded into Kory's apartment in downtown with about 30 other people, I watched this one unfold. And I can tell you where I was standing, what shirt I was wearing, and exactly the way that room looked. On a list of pound-for-pound, minute-for-minute, most exhiliarting Tennessee football games to watch, this one is alone at the top.

On Florida's first drive, the Gators went three and out. Cue the Vols, who methodically marched downfield, using quick passes from Clausen all over the field to push the defense back and allow Travis Stephens to start his motor. The Vols drove in time consuming fashion, and once they got close, Clausen hit Troy Fleming on the sideline for the score. One drive, 7-0 Vols.

The drive was so long that you were almost waiting for something to go wrong. On Florida's next possession, John Henderson got a mitt on a Grossman pass (who's just short enough to be bothered by Big John and Big Al in the middle), and Jabari Greer picked it off. And from that point, you knew the Vols could roll with them. A few plays later, from six yards out, Travis Stephens scored his first touchdown of the night, and the Vols led 14-0 with 3:03 left in the first quarter. Two drives, two touchdowns.

Then, what seemed like the inevitable happened: here comes Florida, who, in the years that they beat Tennessee, didn't just answer Vol scoring drives, they overwhelmed them. And in the second quarter of this contest, Florida did just that. It started with a bomb to Reche Caldwell to the one yard line, where Grossman would sneak in a play later. On Tennessee's third drive, Clausen went to Jason Witten, but Witten fumbled along the sideline and the ball stayed in bounds, and there was Todd Johnson, who returned the ball to the 16 yard line. Thankfully, the Vol defense held and the Gators knocked home a field goal to make it 14-10, but all the momentum was gone in the span of three minutes of game time.

Then it got worse. Clausen again went to Witten, who couldn't pull it in, and the ball was off his hands and into the arms of Mike Nattiel. This time Grossman went to Gaffney from 21 yards out, and now Florida had the lead 17-14 with still 9:00 left before halftime. The Vols ate away most of that clock, but the drive stalled on a failed 4th down conversion. The Gators would close out the half with another field goal, and led 20-14 at the break.

At halftime, I remember thinking that we couldn't possibly play any better than we had in the first quarter, and we were still losing. That, for all of our talent and effort, in The Swamp, you just can't play that well for the entire game - that we'd had our shot and now it was gone, and the momentum and energy on Florida's side we couldn't get back.

It took Tennessee four plays to prove me wrong.

The Vols came out of the second half throwing, and Clausen hit three consecutive completions, including a long one to Donte' Stallworth. At the Florida 35, they went back to Travis Stephens, and Stephens put Tennessee on his back from this point. He roared all 35 yards into the end zone, and in one minute and fifty-six seconds of game time, the Vols were back in front 21-20. Stephens was just getting warmed up.

Florida's offense was equal to the task, storming downfield. But the Vols scored one of their four sacks of Grossman on the night, and Florida instead was forced to settle for three. Jeff Chandler's kick put the Gators back on top 23-21 with 5:54 still left in the third.

Casey Clausen made his worst decision of the night on the next drive, firing into traffic where he was intercepted by Lito Sheppard. Florida again had the opportunity to get ahead by two possessions, and was faced with a 4th and one at the Vol 31. Spurrier being Spurrier, he sent the offense onto the field, but Florida was called for false start. He left the offense out there, now turning down a 53 yard attempt on 4th and 6. Will Overstreet sacked Grossman, and the see-saw went back Tennessee's way.

Tennessee's next drive ate up more clock and featured more Travis Stephens, breaking off another big run - this after the Vols went for it on 4th and 1 near midfield and got it - to set up Jabari Davis, who punched it in as the game moved to the 4th quarter. The Vols went for two and failed, but still led 27-23.

Florida came right back downfield, but in close, this drive featured a "did he fumble or not" play when Grossman was leveled in the backfield. The play was ruled an incomplete pass, but if instant replay was in effect I think it would've been overturned. As a result, the Gators sent the field goal unit on, and Jeff Chandler bombed one home from 52 yards. The Vols still led 27-26, with 10:30 to play.

Would the Vols go conservative? Well, not exactly. First, Clausen hit Bobby Graham - the subtle MVP of the night - for one of his seven catches for a big first down on 3rd down. And if by going conservative, you mean handing the ball to Travis Stephens, on this night it was the right call. On the definitive memory play of the game, Stephens ripped off 68 yards and embarassed, in turn, Marquand Manuel and Guss Scott. The authority with which he ran signified the Vols' intent the whole night - in the postgame, Lee Corso would say "Tennessee lined it up and said, "Come on, Florida. Bring it on." And they ran right at them." That's exactly what the Vols did, for 242 yards. Stephens' 226 is one of the top five all time rushing performances at the university.

Jabari Davis continued to reap the benefits of Stephens long but not quite touchdown runs. J-Train punched it in this time from one yard out, and suddenly the Vols led 34-26. The decision to go for two and missing left the game at one possession, with 8:30 to play.

Then, the Vol defense made an incredible stand, holding the Gators and forcing a punt. This time, perhaps Tennessee did get just a wee bit too conversative, but it's hard to complain - after being stopped, the Vols sent Dustin Colquitt on for his only punt of the night.

Rex Grossman was 77 yards away and time was precious. But the Heisman candidate went right to work, bringing Florida downfield, converting third downs, and ultimately putting the Gators in the end zone on a TD pass to Carlos Perez with 1:10 remaining. 34-32, and the Gators needed the two to tie. Grossman, sacked four times and beaten much worse than that, had a remarkable performance of 33 of 51 for 362 yards. Grossman has earned his place with Jay Barker and Danny Wuerfful as quarterbacks for teams I dislike that have my respect.

But Grossman needed the two to tie the game. He needed it for the Heisman, and Florida needed it for their season. The Gators went to the air - on the night, they ran for only 36 yards. Grossman was hurried by the Vol D, fired and the pass was broken up by Buck Fitzgerald (seen here celebrating with Andre Lott). We were almost home.

The onside kick was the last hope, and John Finlayson - who says tight ends aren't important - made a leaping grab to hang on to the ball. Then came the victory formation. Then came the realization. Then came the celebration.

Tennessee 34 - Florida 32.

By itself, beating Florida was and is an accomplishment. Winning in The Swamp erased all the years of frustration and the label that the Vols couldn't do this or that - something they cemented two years later by winning again. But this one was with everything on the table, and Tennessee won it.

On the day, #1 Miami narrowly escaped Virginia Tech 26-24 to lock up the #1 spot in the BCS. #4 Oregon was shaky but beat Oregon State 17-14, but the Vols would vault them. And any Texas controversy was erased when Chris Simms met the Colorado defense, and the Buffaloes stole the Big 12 Championship. By night's end, the Vols were left standing at #2 in the polls, #2 in the BCS - and it wasn't even close.

Later that night, LSU upended Auburn to win the SEC West. And seven days later, the most heartbreaking loss that I know of - the game that would be an easy #1 on the opposite of this list - happened in the Georgia Dome, ending the elation of this game far, far too soon. The Vols got seven days of celebration out of this win, and then it was over. Had Tennessee won the SEC Championship - regardless of success or failure against Miami in the Rose Bowl - this game would be in the Top 4. Instead, we're left with only the brief memories of that night...

In Knoxville, the celebration was enormous. The Strip was alive, fans rushed to Neyland Stadium ("Let's get the goal posts!"), and Tennessee Football was king. On a list of Phil Fulmer's most important wins ever, this one would be at or near the top. Travis Stephens was a hero and should have won the Doak Walker Award. But it was the effort of the entire team, for all sixty minutes, that made this one truly memorable. Tennessee walked into Gainesville 18 point underdogs with 30 years of heavy baggage. The Vols walked out as SEC Eastern Division Champions.

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