The 50 Best Games of the Fulmer Era:  35-31

The countdown rolls on, continuing towards the top at five at a time.  As signing day moves closer and the reality of the Lane Kiffin Era grows each day, we continue to bid one final fond farewell to Coach Fulmer by looking back at the best his seventeen years had to offer.

The list so far...

  • 50. 1994:  Tennessee 45 - #17 Virginia Tech 23 (Gator Bowl)
  • 49. 1994:  #19 Tennessee 41 - #23 Georgia 23 (Athens)
  • 48. 1996:  #9 Tennessee 48 - #11 Northwestern 28 (Citrus Bowl)
  • 47. 1999:  #7 Tennessee 24 - Auburn 0 (Knoxville)
  • 46. 1996:  #7 Tennessee 29 - Georgia 17 (Athens)
  • 45. 2001:  #9 Tennessee 17 - #12 South Carolina 10 (Knoxville)
  • 44. 1993:  #6 Tennessee 38 - #22 Georgia 6 (Knoxville)
  • 43. 2006:  #11 Tennessee 31 - Air Force 30 (Knoxville)
  • 42. 2008:  Tennessee 28 - Kentucky 10 (Knoxville)
  • 41. 2000:  Tennessee 17 - #17 South Carolina 14 (Columbia)
  • 40. 2007:  #22 Tennessee 34 - Arkansas 13 (Knoxville)
  • 39. 1997:  #3 Tennessee 17 - Vanderbilt 10 (Knoxville)
  • 38. 2001:  #11 Tennessee 35 - Alabama 24 (Tuscaloosa)
  • 37. 2007:  Tennessee 27 - #15 South Carolina 24 (OT) (Knoxville)
  • 36. 1999:  #5 Tennessee 21 - #10 Alabama 7 (Tuscaloosa)
  • The writeups so far...

  • Part One (Games 50-46)
  • Part Two (Games 45-41) 
  • Part Three (Games 40-36)
  •  

    In this installment, we remember Notre Dame, the best Georgia had to offer, and what it was like to actually beat UCLA... 

    35. 1999:  #4 Tennessee 38 - #24 Notre Dame 14 (Knoxville)

    There's still nothing like blowing out Notre Dame.

    This game was even more special because it marked the return of ESPN College GameDay to Knoxville after an absence of more than three years.  When Chris Fowler made his "trailer trash" comments after the 1997 Heisman Trophy debacle, the boys in Bristol worried about retaliation should the program show its face in Knoxville.  So during the Vols' 1998 National Championship run, the show never once came to Knoxville, even in weeks where the obvious matchup of the week was there (the Arkansas game being the best example).

    The following year, apparently they thought enough time had passed.  And by this point in early November, Tennessee's only loss was to Florida, and though the Vols were ranked 4th in the polls, in the BCS they had vaulted unbeaten Virginia Tech and were sitting pretty at #2.

    I was a freshman in college, and we made our way from North Carrick down to Thompson-Boling a little after six in the morning (after getting ditched by one of our friends who went down at five and wound up on the front row, proudly sporting his Alabama attire...).  If you've never been to the GameDay set, I'd recommend it at least once - it's a unique event with an atmosphere that builds as the morning goes on.  And I'll say this - we stuck around after the show ended at noon and got to shake hands with Lee, Chris and Kirk.  And Fowler was very contrite about what he had said when the person in line before me asked him about it, and said that Knoxville was one of his favorite places to be.  Maybe he says that everywhere, I don't know...but I bought it, and all was forgiven.

    The game itself produced a few dramatic moments, but they were quickly put to rest by Volunteer dominance.  Notre Dame drove into Tennessee territory on the opening drive, but Raynoch Thompson scored a pick to end the threat.  Tee Martin would play one of his best games as a Vol, hitting Donte' Stallworth in the second quarter to make it 10-0.  Notre Dame would answer, scoring the first rushing touchdown the Vol defense had allowed all year.  But Martin milked the clock, then fired a laser between three defenders to Eric Parker with :09 on the clock to give the Vols a 17-7 halftime lead.

    In the third, Martin made one of the best passes I've ever seen in my life:  almost 70 yards in the air, with Leonard Scott beating two Irish DBs, then turning to a dead stop nine yards deep in the end zone to catch it.  Notre Dame tried to fake a punt and was denied, and Travis Henry responded with a 40 yard touchdown run.

    At 31-14 in the 4th, the Irish drove to the Vol 9, but were stopped on 4th and 2.  The Vols punched one more in for the final, 38-14.  Tennessee would lose an absolute heartbreaker at Arkansas the following week, taking them out of the National Championship picture and ending an incredible run from the end of the 1997 season until that moment, where the Vols found themselves in the national title picture every single week.

    34. 1997:  #9 Tennessee 38 - #13 Georgia 13 (Knoxville)

    The first of three straight seasons where Georgia came into the Tennessee game undefeated and thinking championship, and Tennessee humbled them by at least three possessions.

    The week before, the Vols had finally decided to get Mark Levine (remember him?) out of the backfield and put freshman Jamal Lewis in the top spot on the depth chart.  Lewis responded with 155 yards in a win over Ole Miss.

    That was the warmup.

    In his second start and going against his home state, Lewis uncorked 232 yards, a performance that still ranks 7th all-time at Tennessee.  "Give the Ball to Jamal" was born on this afternoon.

    Not to be outdone was our senior quarterback, who figured he had to up the ante when his freshman tailback is going for 232.  So Peyton Manning unleashed 343 yards of his own through the air, and the game was never close and never in doubt.

    This game also included the infamous exchange between Jim Donnan and Phil Fulmer in the postgame handshake, where Donnan allegedly cussed Fulmer in front of his daughter for Manning's passing touchdown late in the 4th quarter to make it 38-13.  Those surrounding Fulmer say that he didn't forget it, and would use it as motivation as the Vols continued their run over Georgia the next two seasons...

    33. 2001:  #7 Tennessee 28 - Notre Dame 18 (South Bend)

    Outside of 1998, there are a couple of seasons during the Fulmer Era where it just seemed like every single week was memorable for one reason or another.  One was 2007, where the losses were rock bottom and the wins were either totally unexpected or down to the wire affairs.

    The other is 2001, where the Vols played an insanely difficult schedule (including Syracuse, at Arkansas, LSU, Georgia, at Alabama, South Carolina, at Notre Dame, at Florida, LSU, Michigan), where the wins were often so very memorable...and the two losses rank among the most heartbreaking in the history of Tennessee football.  Seven games from 2001 will make their way to this list, more than any other season except 1998.

    During the midst of that run, Tennessee found themselves in South Bend in early November.  The Vols had just beaten #12 South Carolina the week before, clearing the path for the postponed Tennessee-Florida showdown game on December 1.  This appeared to be the final challenge between the Vols and Gainesville.

    The Irish once more did a shoddy job taking care of their field, because I swear it looked like we were playing in ankle-deep grass at times.  That was a good way to slow down Travis Stephens, who was still building a Doak Walker campaign.

    There were signs early that Touchdown Jesus was going to show the Vols his favor:  Arnaz Battle fumbled at the one yard line, recovered by Constantin Ritzmann.  Then Julian Battle used a strip and a great bounce to race 81 yards back for a touchdown.  That was all the mighty Vols could muster against the Irish in the first half, taking a 7-3 lead into the locker room.

    90 seconds into the third quarter, Notre Dame got a defensive touchdown on their own, picking off Casey Clausen and taking it to the house, putting the Irish in front 10-7.  Tennessee continued to grind - Stephens finished with only 63 yards on 24 carries - but scored twice to go back in front 21-10.  But Notre Dame didn't go away, scoring in the 4th and getting the two, cutting the Vol lead to 21-18.

    But Casey Clausen once more led a gritty drive, capping this one himself with a John Elway-esque dive/spin for the touchdown to put the Vols up 28-18.  When the Irish tried to respond, John Henderson batted a ball at the line, and Dominique Stevenson was there to pick it off and end the threat.

    32. 1999:  #6 Tennessee 37 - #10 Georgia 20 (Knoxville)

    Here we go again:  Georgia is undefeated and thinking championship, and Tennessee stands in their way.  The Vols had lost at Florida, and then looked pedestrian on offense in a 17-16 win over Memphis and a 24-0 win over Auburn (helped along by the three Deon Grant interceptions).  The Dawgs, with Quincy Carter, were known to have a much better offense than Memphis or Auburn.  Many saw this as the day things came out from underneath the Vols and Georgia finally won one in this rivalry.

    Nope.

    Tee Martin scored.  Jamal Lewis scored.  Travis Henry scored.  Cedrick Wilson caught one.

    In the blink of an eye, the Vols were ahead 30-7.

    Quincy Carter?  Sacked six times.

    Ron Franklin:  "Tennessee didn't just beat Georgia.  They humiliated them."

    The humiliation was made complete in the 4th quarter when the Vols pulled their starters.  Georgia scored, got a turnover, and then scored again to make it 30-20 and give the Dawgs one heartbeat of hope. 

    And in the next heartbeat, Leonard Scott became the 4th Vol all-time to take a kickoff back 100 yards to the end zone.  37-20, game over.

    This was the end of an era:  the Vols won nine straight games against Georgia until the Bulldogs finally reversed the trend the next season, in Athens in 2000.  This is one of Fulmer's greatest accomplishments.

    31. 1996:  #2 Tennessee 35 - UCLA 20 (Knoxville)

    Following the 11-1 season in 1995, the Vols began 1996 ranked #2 in the polls and on the cover of Sports Illustrated.  Neyland Stadium was expanded to include a new upper deck in the north end zone.  And CBS had just won the bidding war for the SEC television rights, and this was their primetime debut.  So this night in Knoxville was special just because everyone in attendance had that almost-tangible feeling that this was the year, and that we'd finally arrived.  Florida would dismantle that idea the following week in about twenty minutes...but before that, this was a great night to be a Tennessee Vol.

    Peyton Manning squared off against Cade McNown, and Manning got the better of him early:  the Vols jumped in front 14-3, and then a McNown interception just before the half helped the Vols stretch that lead to 21-3.

    But Manning fired his own INT to open the third, which sparked a Bruins rally.  UCLA cut the lead to 21-13 and had the ball late in the third, but the Vol defense held.  And Terry Fair took the punt and raced it back to the house, putting the Vols up 28-13.

    McNown responded and the Bruins got it to 28-20 in the 4th.  But again, Manning would have the last word:  on one of the best plays of his career, Joey Kent ran the hitch-and-go, and when Manning pumped both DBs bit.  Kent had 20 yards on the defenders, and pulled in the bomb for the final touch:  Tennessee 35, UCLA 20.  The national excitement in the air continued, at least on this night.

    What about you?

    Again, we welcome your stories - any memories from these games?     

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