Change was in the air as the 2004 season approached. The Casey Clausen era was over, and the Vols had four different options in fall camp to replace him. Florida was entering year three of the Ron Zook era, but the Vols had missed their opportunity to capitalize on the Gators' slide, as Georgia had won back-to-back division championships, and was projected to easily win a third. And in a larger sense, there was a clear break from the success of the late 90s: all the players with championship rings, as well as the players who were recruited immediately following the '98 season, were now all gone. The Vols were made up of a group of players who had no ties to the SEC or National Championships, and almost none of the '04 Vols saw any meaningful action in the 2001 season that brought Tennessee's last division title. Phillip Fulmer had righted the ship after the frustrating 2002 season, but the Peach Bowl loss to Clemson to end the 2003 campaign still left a sour aftertaste heading to 2004.
Early in fall camp, Fulmer surprised everyone by continuing with the theme of change: senior CJ Leak and junior Rick Clausen, both thought to be Tennessee's best options at quarterback, were removed from the equation, as Fulmer announced that the starting job would belong to true freshmen Erik Ainge and/or Brent Schaeffer. No true freshman had ever started Tennessee's season opener at quarterback, and the move from the usually conservative Fulmer shocked many. Expectations were on hold, though a little lower than usual, but fans were excited to see what the future would bring.
And they wouldn't have to wait long to see Fulmer's gamble pay off.
In what is still the highest attended non-Florida game in Neyland Stadium history, the Vols played Sunday night football and blew out UNLV 42-17 in the opener. It was only UNLV...but the two freshmen led the Vols to 513 yards of offense, and combined to go an impressive 17 of 27 for 241 yards, 3 TDs and 0 INTs. It was a great start...but the Gators were next.
We covered the 2004 Tennessee-Florida game in depth during our 50 Best Games of the Fulmer Era countdown earlier this year, and I still maintain that it's the best individual football game I've ever seen at Neyland Stadium. Each team had over 400 yards of offense, neither team ever had a lead of more than seven points, and the outcome was in doubt on every single snap. You can still make the argument that this was Erik Ainge's greatest performance, even though it was his second career game: 16 of 24, 192 yards, 3 TDs. But much more than that, he led scoring drives of 80, 80, and 96 yards, converted two third downs and a fourth down on the fourth quarter drive that should've tied it, and then made two additional completions to set up the field goal that eventually won it. James Wilhoit's 50 yard bomb after missing an extra point to win the game is the most exciting snap of the decade.
On top of the world after beating the Gators for the third time in four years - and we haven't beaten them since - the Vols handled Louisiana Tech, and then ran unknowingly into a buzzsaw. The 2004 Auburn Tigers would end the season undefeated, with only the BCS between them and the National Championship. But in late September we didn't know that...though by halftime of our meeting in Knoxville, you knew something was up. Tennessee got a field goal in the first half. Their other drives went 3 and out, fumble, interception, 3 and out, interception...and behind Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown, Auburn had a 31-3 lead at the break. The Vols turned it over six times on the night and lost 34-10.
Fresh off that reality check, the Vols traveled to Athens to face #3 Georgia. And while Tennessee was getting pounded by Auburn, the Dawgs had been beating defending National Champion LSU 45-16. Tennessee was a 12 point underdog in Athens...but Fulmer and the Vols pulled off one of their all-time best upsets, winning 19-14. Suddenly and unexpectedly, the Vols had a two game advantage on both Florida and Georgia in the SEC East race.
Tennessee gutted one out 17-13 against Alabama, intercepting Spencer Pennington on Alabama's final fourth quarter drive to seal it. At this point, Tennessee had won 9 of their last 10 against the Tide. The SEC East was all but locked up.
Then the injuries came.
First, Brent Schaeffer went down with a broken collarbone in a 43-29 shootout win over South Carolina. The following week, Tennessee played Notre Dame in Knoxville. The Vols were 7-1 and ranked in the top ten, and with the team's maturation you were eager for a rematch with Auburn in the SEC Championship Game, and a chance to play in the BCS. Ty Willingham was a lame duck in South Bend, and the 5-3 Irish weren't expected to put up much of a fight.
Tennessee led 10-7 late in the second quarter, and got the ball back after a Notre Dame punt at their own 30 with exactly 1:00 left in the half. And one of the worst playcalling decisions of Randy Sanders' career cost Erik Ainge his season, and the Vols this game. Tennessee ran a draw on first down, Cedric Houston got two yards, and the Vols didn't call timeout. Tennessee clearly was not trying to advance the ball and get points. Yet on second down, Sanders dialed up a pass out of the shotgun. The ball went over Erik Ainge's head, and in the scramble for it, Ainge suffered a separated ac joint in his shoulder (the Sam Bradford injury). If the Vols just go into halftime like it certainly looked like they were trying to do the play before, Tennessee does not lose this game.
Instead, with Ainge and Schaeffer on the sideline, Rick Clausen came in and immediately fired a pick six that gave Notre Dame the lead. The Vols got only a field goal with Clausen under center, and the Irish won 17-13. Not only did the loss hurt, but now most thought the Vols had no chance against Auburn in Atlanta. When the Vols struggled to beat Kentucky and Vanderbilt - though not because of Clausen or the offense - most assumed another beatdown was in order.
If there was such a thing as a moral victory for Tennessee Football in the Fulmer Era, the 2004 SEC Championship Game was it. Against the undefeated juggernaut that blew them away in September, and with Rick Clausen at quarterback, Tennessee fought. Down 21-7 at halftime, Clausen directed a touchdown drive in the third quarter, and then Gerald Riggs - 182 yards on the night - ripped off an 80 yard touchdown run that tied the game at 21-21.
Auburn went up 31-21, but again Riggs got it done, pulling the Vols within three at 31-28 with ten minutes to play. Auburn scored again to put the game away, and the Vols helped the process along with a 12 penalty night (it's what we do in the Georgia Dome), but you left the game believing that Rick Clausen could help this team, and the Vols were better than we thought.
Those thoughts were validated on New Year's Day, as Tennessee demolished a ranked Texas A&M squad 38-7 in the Cotton Bowl. Clausen was the MVP, and the 31 point win is the largest margin of victory in a bowl game in Tennessee Football history. The Vols finished the season 10-3, losing only to undefeated Auburn twice, and Notre Dame because of Ainge's injury. Cedric Houston and Gerald Riggs both ran for over 1,000 yards, and the Vols used two freshmen and an LSU reject at quarterback to get it done. It was Tennessee's second of three Eastern Division titles of the decade, and the only time the Vols beat Florida, Georgia and Alabama in the same year.