We kickoff a new feature here at Rocky Top Talk, one final look back during the offseason at the high points of the Phillip Fulmer Era before we plunge headfirst into the Lane Kiffin Family.
Back in the infancy stage of my blogging career, I put together a list of Tennessee's biggest wins during the modern era on my old site. We've reworked that list now to highlight the Top 50 games of the Phillip Fulmer Era, from his interim stint in 1992 through the ill-fated 2008 season.
We'll walk through these five at a time until we get closer to the top; the list isn't based on any one specific criteria and there's no formula to the rankings, they're just listed based on their importance and memorability, in my humble opinion.
For example, while the 41-14 win over Alabama in 1995 wasn't a dramatic game, its importance to the program will land it quite high on this list. And likewise, the multiple-overtime games are here, but perhaps not quite as high as you'd think depending on their importance to the season. This list is about which wins meant the most to Tennessee Football under Fulmer's watch.
Many thanks to the Tennessee Football Media Guide, wikipedia, and a host of Vol Network DVDs for filling in the gaps in my memory.
These are the games that defined Fulmer's career and a generation of Tennessee Football fans, the best games the last seventeen years have to offer.
And of course...the Vols win them all.
We begin today with five games from the 90s, including two bowls and two trips to Athens...
50. 1994: Tennessee 45 - #17 Virginia Tech 23 (Gator Bowl)
We start with one for all my friends here in southwest Virginia.
The '94 Vols lost Jerry Colquitt on the seventh play of the season, then lost three of their first four games while Todd Helton, Peyton Manning and Brandon Stewart were trying to figure out how to play quarterback. Alabama would deal the Vols a heartbreaking 17-13 loss in October (the Tide's last win before the Vols reeled off seven straight), but as the calendar hit November Peyton Manning used the remaining games to lay the foundation for the incredible things to come in his remaining three seasons.
Each week he further separated himself from Brandon Stewart, and by the time the Vols accepted the bid to play in the Gator Bowl, Manning was the unquestioned future. On this night, he combined with some exiting Vol seniors to end what once was a terribly frustrating season on a very good note.
The game was actually played at The Swamp in Gainesville, while the city of Jacksonville was renovating their stadium for the Jaguars. And across the field were the Hokies, featuring WR Antonio Freeman and fueled by a passionate disdain for the Vols that I'm not sure people in East Tennessee fully appreciate; having lived here for two and a half years I can assure you that there's little love for the Vols this side of Bristol. Before Michael Vick came along a few years later, this was Tech's biggest chance to make a name for themselves.
It didn't take Tennessee long to take that chance away from them.
Tyrone Hines came up with an interception on the game's second play, and the Vols capitalized for the first of five first half touchdowns.
Later in the first quarter, Manning would complete, in order, an 11 yard pass to Joey Kent on 3rd and 8, followed by a 43 yard "full extension!" bomb to Kent (John Ward: "OOOOOOOOOHHHHHHHHH! A SPECTACULAR play by Kent!")...followed by a 35 yard strike to Marcus Nash for a touchdown.
Kenderick Jones went 76 yards on an end around in the second quarter to set up the Vols' third score, and when the Hokies answered with their first points, Brandon Stewart led a touchdown drive in his first action of the night to make it 28-7. Off a Tech fumble, the Vols used a trick play with James "Little Man" Stewart - in his final game as a Vol - throwing a touchdown pass. Tennessee went to the locker room with a 35-10 lead.
After the Hokies pulled to 35-16 to start the fourth, Little Man again took over, scoring his third touchdown of the game to put it fully out of reach at 42-16, and the Vols went on to win 45-23. Tennessee put up 495 yards of total offense, and Stewart's three rushing touchdowns were good enough to earn him the game's MVP honors. The last time Tennessee and Virginia Tech have played, and the last time the Vols would appear in the Gator Bowl.
49. 1994: #19 Tennessee 41 - #23 Georgia 23 (Athens)
Of all the games Tennessee took from Georgia in the 90's, this is the one that never should've happened.
In the second game of the same season that ended against the Hokies, Todd Helton went between the hedges as the starting quarterback. The Vols had lost at UCLA and Manning and Brandon Stewart simply weren't ready. The gameplan was simple: get the ball to Little Man and get out of his way. Georgia had to have known it, they just couldn't stop it.
Stewart would finish the day with 211 yards rushing and 4 TDs, tying a UT record. One particular run covered 71 yards and featured broken tackles on half the Georgia defense, and is still one of the five best runs I've ever seen a Tennessee back make.
The Vols would go onto lose the next two weeks against Florida and Mississippi State, but at the time this win gave hope that there was life after Jerry Colquitt, and continued Tennessee's impressive string of victories over the Dawgs in the 90s.
48. 1996: #9 Tennessee 48 - #11 Northwestern 28 (Citrus Bowl)
Back in Orlando for the second straight year and the third time in four tries, playing against the Big Ten co-champions and a program who would've counted a win over the Vols as one of the biggest in the history of the program, there was reason for concern coming into this game...maybe the Vols would overlook Northwestern.
At least, not at the start. Manning - playing in what we all thought was his final game at the time - hit Peerless Price on a 43 yard strike, then ran a naked bootleg a massive 10 yards for another score, as Tennessee raced to a 21-0 first half lead.
Northwestern rallied, to their creidt, behind Darnell Autry and tied the game at 21-21. But the Vols caught their breath and then went back to work, outscoring the Wildcats 27-7 from there on out.
Joey Kent, in his final game as a Vol, finished with 122 yards receiving. But Manning finished with 408 through the air, third best all time at Tennessee (which means it's also third best all time for Manning) and, no surprise, took home the game's MVP honors.
Favorite part of this one: watching Manning play along with the "ONE MORE YEAR!" chants from the orange faithful in Orlando. Not sure if he knew it then that he was going to stay...but surely this helped him lean in that direction, even if just a little bit.
47. 1999: #7 Tennessee 24 - Auburn 0 (Knoxville)
"Hey, when's the last time Tennessee beat Auburn?"
Morale was down, because it had no place left to go after winning the National Championship and losing an absolute heartbreaker in The Swamp to open SEC play the next year. It almost cost us the next week against Memphis (yet another example for the "put the orange pants away" file), but the Vols rallied to win 17-16.
So here comes Auburn and an ESPN Saturday night telecast. This one is particularly memorable for me, because it was my first big game in the student section. The Tigers bring Tommy Tuberville - remember him? - to Knoxville in his first season at the helm for Auburn. And things did not start well.
On the first play from scrimmage, Auburn was intercepted by Deon Grant, who quickly raced back to the end zone for a score. Throat slash, engage.
And really, it was enough. The Vols pitched a shutout and Grant would finish the night with two more INTs in a performance worthy of Eric Berry. In the meantime, Cedrick Wilson was emerging as Tee Martin's go-to threat in the absence of Peerless Price; Wilson finished with 112 yards.
You could also point to this night as the beginning of the transition from Jamal Lewis to Travis Henry carrying the majority of the load in the Tennessee backfield - we'll see plenty of great Jamal moments going through this list, but I think most Tennessee fans agree that he simply quit running so hard after we lost to Florida in 1999, which isn't a problem Henry ever had. Either way, on this night Auburn had no answers...and the Vols haven't had an answer for Auburn since.
46. 1996: #7 Tennessee 29 - Georgia 17 (Athens)
Everybody remembers this game for Manning's QB sneak that turned into a touchdown pass. And rightfully so. But people forget, that's just one of the crazy things Manning did on this night.
The sneak play was a fluke thing...perhaps even more impressive was a play earlier where Manning tripped over an offensive lineman (wait your turn, Clint Stoerner), and then calmly fired a strike to Jermaine Copeland while falling down and nearly parallel to the ground. On this night, and at this point in Peyton's career, you believed anything was possible. And plays like that sneak/TD pass proved you right more often than not. 371 yards for Manning on this night.
Meanwhile, the Tennessee defense put a beating on Mike Bobo, and the Vols had their sixth straight win in the series.
What about you?
Your thoughts and memories from any of these games?