12. 2004: #17 Tennessee 19 - #3 Georgia 14 (Athens, GA)
When Phil Fulmer said he was going to turn the reigns of the offense over to Erik Ainge and Brent Schaeffer, in favor of the elder statesman CJ Leak and transfer Rick Clausen, Vol fans were a combination of excitement and uncertaintiy. The two-headed monster helped to feed the excitement by beating Florida, with both QBs turning in solid performances. But the Auburn game might've been the more realistic dose. Playing at home against a team that would go on to finish the season 13-0, the Vols were demolished 34-10, beaten in every phase of the game. Erik Ainge had five turnovers by himself, Schaeffer wasn't much better, the Vols got behind so fast they couldn't run, and the defense was made to look foolish by Jason Campbell and the two-headed beast of Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown. It was the most soundly rousing defeat Tennessee had suffered in a long time, and Vol fans weren't totally furious - it's that they simply began to really buy into the realism of playing two true freshmen at quarterback with a defense still trying to find its feet. Vol fans would chalk that one up to experience for the most part.
Four hours down the road on the same day, a top five showdown between LSU and Georgia ensued. And if you thought what Auburn did to Tennessee was nasty, the number that Georgia put on the defending National Champions was even more impressive. Georgia played the perfect game, getting five touchdown passes from David Greene in a 45-16 ambush of the Tigers. On Sunday morning, Georgia found itself ranked third in the polls, on a team loaded with senior talent, and - knowing that the Vols had beaten Florida, and then knowing that Auburn had exposed Tennessee's youth in a frightening way - you couldn't have asked for a better situation in Athens. Nevermind the SEC East, nevermind a young Auburn team still hovering outside the Top 5 on the first Saturday in October - the Dawgs were thinking National Championship. And perhaps, rightfully so. Mark Richt had taken Georgia to the threshold in 2002 with a 13-1 season, and had won the East again in 2003. Now all of those guys were seniors and ready to make the storybook run.
The Vols knew this as well. And the thought was, if (what was thought to be) an up and coming Auburn team did that to us at home, this is Georgia on the road. And if those freshmen took their lumps last week...in their first hostile environment ever...look out.
Let's also not forget that Georgia had now beaten the Vols four straight, including a 41-14 embarassment in Neyland Stadium the previous season. In short, all signs pointed to not only Georgia winning, but Georgia doing what it pleased. I was genuinely surprised when we were only a 12-point dog in this one.
So it happened that my sister, or one of her friends, or someone I know hit the ticket lottery, whoever it was (Will is 0 for life at winning the student ticket lottery, 0 for life at being an alternate). So I get the tickets - second row - and then I can't find anybody to go. As it ends up, it's me and Josh Clark going to war down I-75. If you ever catch this game on ESPN Classic or TiVo it, you can see us down close - look for the guy in the bright orange shirt and the blue scrub bottoms, with everyone else around him looking at him going "did that guy come straight from the hospital?" (The answer, by the way, is no - that's just what he wanted to wear)
Once we got on campus, before kickoff, I saw two things I'd never seen before. One - I've never, ever seen Tennessee disrespected like this before. Ever. Now, I know all of what I wrote up there is true about the overall tone for this game. And I know Georgia had beaten us four years in a row. But look, you'll never catch me disrespecting Alabama when we've beaten them 7 in a row, and especially not like this - like we're so far beneath them, the fans and their players, that we're just not worth their time at all. They weren't worried about us at all. And it didn't make you happy or make you think "maybe we'll slip up on them then." It made me furious - because we're Tennessee. And this is before 5-6. And they're Georgia - and I don't care if they'd won 4 in a row, we won 10 straight before that on them. And it's not like they can pull up a chair at the big boys table and throw down their National Championship rings. They're not Florida, they're not Alabama, they're not Auburn, they're not LSU - they were and are playing really good football right now, but Georgia doesn't get to disrespect Tennessee. Not like this. Especially not like this - for good measure, no one should disrespect Tennessee like this. You would've had to been there to see it firsthand.
And they paid for it.
But before we get to that...another byproduct of all of this was this is the worst turnout of Tennessee fans I've ever seen. Normally, a well-traveled team like the Vols will have a large section around the band in the lower level, and then another group of seats high in the upper deck - it's the same game at Neyland Stadium for visiting teams there. I'd been to Georgia twice before and had sat in both places, surrounded by lots of other folks in orange.
But on this day...where were you guys? Because there's no one wearing orange in the upper deck at all. And the lower level section is about 1/3 of its normal size - essentially, it's the students and the band, and most of the students are only there (so I'm told anyway) because they're too drunk to know better. I found a great picture of this that shows this real well, but pictures aren't working right now for some reason - we'll try later. When I told people in Knoxville that I was going after the Auburn game, one person asked me if I was a glutton for punishment, and my Dad looked at me like he didn't raise me right.
Fools, all of you! This is like slapping someone for picking against Tennessee in the weekly picks when they win. But again, we're getting ahead of ourselves.
The point is, we're small in number and most of us are highly intoxicated, but if you've ever been to an away game at a hostile environment, everyone wearing your color is your lifelong friend. So, backed into our little corner of the sideline/endzone with 80-plus thousand in red bearing down on us (though that stadium, like most, isn't that big if you've been to Neyland), we become our own little army. There are so few of us that by the 4th quarter everybody pretty much knows everybody. One of the reasons this game is so memorable for me are all of these little nuances about the student section that day - pilgrims in an unholy land. We came for war, underdogs or no. We'd all seen, heard, and felt the disrespect. Before kickoff, I'm thinking "man, this is exactly the type of situation where I'd love to kill these guys by four touchdowns more than I want to see a close game - but there's no way that's going to happen."
And then Tennessee comes out and does what it does when it's disrespected. All throughout 1998, at Florida in 2001, at Miami in 2003, and now on this day. When you throw a number like 12 points out there as the line and put this university on the other side of it, that's trouble in Vegas baby.
We get the ball, and on the opening drive immediately face 3rd and long. No problem, Ainge goes down the sideline for a big first down. Later we have 4th and 1 near midfield. We're going. We make it. Then, on 3rd and 9, Ainge goes up top for Bret Smith in the back of the end zone 22 yards away. 7-0.
You'd think that would've been enough to stop all that disrespect. It wasn't. Not even close - Georgia - again, from fans to players to coaches - wasn't worried. They really played with no urgency until the 4th quarter, and by then it was too late.
On Georgia's first drive, the Dawgs went three and out, giving the ball back to the Vols, who promptly drove downfield and nailed a field goal. In two drives the Vols had matched their offensive output from the previous week.
It would be DJ Shockley's only series of the game that sparked the UGA offense, as Shockley made a terrific throw under pressure to Fred Gibson for a TD. But David Greene couldn't get anything working all day - he would be sacked four times. James Wilhoit added a 51 yarder just before the half to make it 13-7 at the break. Wilhoit also missed two first half field goals that could've made it much worse.
Georgia wanted to come out of the locker room hot, but instead were shut down by the Vol defense again. The two teams had already traded fumbles once, but when Gerald Riggs lost the ball at the UT 13, it looked again to be Georgia's chance to finally get the lead. Instead, they settled for a field goal attempt, which Andy Bailey shanked from only 29 yards away.
Late in the third, Georgia again tried to build momentum by faking a punt ("I never should've done that" - Richt postgame), but Kevin Burnett read it cold and stuffed it, giving Tennessee excellent field position. Ainge would find Chris Hannon for the score (the Vols missed the two) but Tennessee now led 19-7 in the 4th quarter. And finally, Georgia woke up.
The Vol defense still made them earn it, and forced them to eat up plenty of clock. When Danny Ware bounced outside and barrelled into the end zone to make it 19-14, only 4:22 was left. Tennessee's offense could not pick up a first down on 3rd and 2, and was forced to punt, putting the game in the hands of the Vol defense.
Fresh in the memories of most at this point was 2001, when David Greene drove the Dawgs to a score in the final :44 to win in Knoxville. He did that as a freshman - now, as a senior with more time and more timeouts, and we'd fought so hard all day...but everyone in orange was dreading it. And to his credit, Greene gave them a shot, moving the ball from his own 12 upfield and hitting Fred Gibson, who just barely got out of bounds with :01 left at the Vols' 19. One play would determine it.
And then Greene kinda came unglued. The Vols brought a little pressure, Greene fired away - and I'm still not really even sure who he was throwing it to. Not the kind of play I would've expected from him - but man, I'll take it. As the ball was batted to the turf, Tennessee fans first exhaled a huge sigh of relief, and then slowly realized: not only had the Vols upset the #3 team in the country, not only had the Vols ended Georgia's four year victory streak...but the Vols had just beaten Florida and Georgia: the SEC East was locked up.
David Greene finished 15 of 36 with no touchdowns. Georiga was held to 56 yards rushing. Gerald Riggs would grind out 102 yards, and Erik Ainge played mistake-free football to secure the victory, as the Vols won the time of possession battle by more than ten minutes. Georgia was also penalized 12 times for 89 yards...frustration, anyone?
In Athens...the celebration was massive, even with the few & the proud in orange. We celebrated with the team, we celebrated with the band, and then we waited. See, Georgia's student section - the center of the disrespect - all had to make the long walk past our section to get out of the stadium. They tried to wait us out. We were patient.
I realize this is petty stuff, but if you were there, you would've enjoyed it just as much as me. One by one they walked past us, with a thin line of police separating the two. And Georgia doesn't take abuse nearly as well as it dishes it out. Like I said, it's Georgia - still looking for a seat at the big boy table - and a team like that is always the quickest to point a finger, the quickest to flip you off, the quickest to talk trash when they get an ounce of something going right. But when that right goes wrong - especially on this day, especially to the Vols, especially when they had everything going for them and were sure they were headed for the promised land...I'll never forget watching them make that walk, and the friendly conversations we had with each other.
Best part of the day: back in the car, listening to the Georgia postgame show. Former kicker Happ Hines is an analyst, and they throw it to him as soon as the show comes on the air. Happ, your thoughts on today's game?
"When I woke up today, it felt like Christmas morning. Everything was right, everything was great, things were going to go our way. This was our year. And now, Tennessee comes in, and not only have they stolen all of our presents, but they stole the #*&@ tree!"