The biggest win and the worst loss of the football decade took place one week apart, and combined to show the Vols at the height of their power, and to signal the end of that era. It was a unique time that served as a turning point not only for Tennessee, but for both of their opponents, and by proxy the entire Southeastern Conference. On a list of the most important SEC games of the decade, both of these are near the top.
Earlier this year in our countdown of The 50 Best Games of the Fulmer Era, we covered in detail Tennessee's win over Florida on December 1, 2001. We haven't covered in detail what happened seven days later, in part because it's still incredibly unpleasant to remember. In a conversation about the most heartbreaking UT losses not just of the decade, but all-time, I would submit the 2001 SEC Championship Game and put it at the top of the list.
The specifics of each game aside, it's the two stories that combined into one chain of events that help make these two Saturdays so important to Tennessee Football in the 2000s - you can argue that these two weeks really began the long process that led us to the two moments we'll discuss next in our countdown. So we take a look back at the the before, during, and after of two football games with everything on the line, and remember what it was like to come up big, and come up short.
Heading into the annual Third Saturday in September showdown with the hated Florida Gators, Donte' Stallworth had a broken hand, John Henderson had a sprained ankle, and Earnest Graham did not. We didn't know who Kelley Washington was and we didn't know Travis Stephens was a Doak Walker finalist. The Vols hadn't won in The Swamp since 1971.
Four days before the contest, the events of September 11 changed everything. The SEC games scheduled for September 15 were moved to December 1, and the SEC Championship Game was pushed back to December 8. The Vols and Gators would have to wait.
After a scheduled off week, the Vols returned to action on September 29 and hosted LSU. The Tigers were led by Nick Saban in his second season, and had beaten Tennessee in overtime the previous year. Behind Kelley Washington's 11 catches for 256 yards, the Vols got revenge 26-18. But the Vols would lose to Georgia in The Hobnailed Boot Game the following week. Florida lost to Auburn the next week, putting both teams behind the eight ball in the National Championship picture.
The Vols and Gators didn't lose again en route to their December showdown, but coming into Thanksgiving Weekend it seemed certain that the game would be for nothing more than the Eastern Division title. Miami and Nebraska were both undefeated, and the odds were even worse for Tennessee - the Gators were ranked third, but the Vols were stuck back at seventh, behind Oklahoma, Texas, and Oregon.
But in shocking fashion, the Vols got every upset they needed: Colorado blew out Nebraska the day after Thanksgiving, and Oklahoma lost the Bedlam Game the following day. Florida moved to second in the BCS and gained control of their own destiny for the Rose Bowl and the title; the Vols moved to fifth, but a win over the Gators would vault them past Oregon for sure, and it would come down to decimal points with Texas...
December 1 - Gainesville
(again, full details on this game here, which I think is the longest thing I've ever written at RTT)
18 point underdogs, the Vols jumped on Florida 14-0 in the first quarter, then got jumped on for 20 straight going into halftime. The second half turned into the Travis Stephens show - an insane 226 yards on the night - as the game went back and forth. In a game that went 18 consecutive drives without a punt, the Vols bent but didn't break on defense, forcing four Florida field goals and a fourth down stop. The Vols were up 27-26 when Stephens ripped off his most famous run, a 68 yarder that went right through the heart of the Florida defense, leading to a Jabari Davis touchdown to make it 34-26.
Rex Grossman - who had 362 yards and 3 TDs on the night, sharing the wealth between Jabar Gaffney (7 for 101) and Reche Caldwell (8 for 115) - led Florida to a touchdown in the final minute, but misfired against the Tennessee rush on the two point conversion that would've tied it. When the Vols recovered the onside kick, the game was over, and the Vols had won the SEC East Championship, erasing their demons in The Swamp along the way.
Later that night, Chris Simms turned the ball over four times against Colorado in the Big 12 Championship Game, erasing all doubt: the Vols would be #2 in the BCS, and controlled their own fate in the national title hunt. The only thing standing in the way of a Miami-Tennessee national title showdown in the Rose Bowl was the LSU team the Vols had already beaten.
December 8 - Atlanta
One good upset deserves another. This one - when you factor in that the Vols were way too talented to have ever been an 18 point underdog to the Gators, and that LSU would lose QB Rohan Davey and RB LaBrandon Toefield early in this game - was even more surprising.
In 2001, the Georgia Dome wasn't cursed - the Vols had won twice in the building in the '97 and '98 SEC Championships, despite not playing very well either time. And the Vols didn't have that problem in the first half, jumping to a 17-7 lead in the second quarter, 17-10 at halftime. There were roses aplenty in the stands.
Our championship dream died a slow death.
With Davey out, Matt Mauck stepped in. He started scrambling, and the Vols simply never adjusted. The Tigers kicked a field goal, then another one, to make it 17-16. We put our roses down and turned our full attention to the task at hand.
It unfolded like a nightmare that you couldn't escape. Travis Stephens, so great against the Gators just seven days earlier, fumbled to set up LSU's go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter. The Vols answered by driving to 1st and goal at the LSU 4...but couldn't get in, settling for a field goal to make it 24-20 with nine minutes to play.
But the Vols held and got the ball back. We drove to midfield, and Casey Clausen hit Donte' Stallworth inside the LSU 35 across the middle...and then he fumbled.
And then LSU went 65 yards to erase Tennessee's destiny. You could feel it when Julian Battle dropped a sure interception. It got worse when the Vols committed pass interference to extend the drive. And on 4th and goal at the 1, the Tigers clinched it. LSU won 31-20, taking the SEC crown and denying the Vols a much bigger prize.
Consider the impact of these two games on the three teams involved in them:
- Tennessee was fifteen minutes away from playing for their second National Championship in four years. Instead, the Vols lost the first of three SEC Championship Games in the decade, and have not won the conference since the title year in 1998.
- Steve Spurrier never coached another game in The Swamp from the Florida sideline, heading to Washington to coach the Redskins. It was a move made, in part, because 10-2 seasons were no longer good enough in Gainesville. If the Gators beat the Vols and win the SEC, could they have beaten Miami and won it all? And would Spurrier have stayed either way?
- Nick Saban received his first piece of SEC validation, and LSU won their first conference crown in thirteen years. The Tigers would go on to become one of college football's most successful teams of the decade, winning a National Championship two years later under Saban and another in 2007. This sequence was the passing of the torch from Spurrier and Fulmer to Saban and, eventually, Urban Meyer. Meyer came to Florida after Ron Zook tried to replace Spurrier the following season.
- In seven seasons from 1995-2001, the Vols went 11-1, 10-2, 11-2, 13-0, 9-3, 8-4, and 11-2. They won three division titles, two SEC titles, and a national championship in that span. The Vols played in the Citrus, Citrus, Orange, Fiesta, Fiesta, Cotton, and Citrus Bowls during that run - for an encore performance of dominance in this era, the Vols did blast Michigan in Orlando to close the '01 season.
- In seven seasons from 2002-2008, the Vols went 8-5, 10-3, 10-3, 5-6, 9-4, 10-4, and 5-7. The Vols won two additional division titles but lost both times in Atlanta. The Vols played in consecutive Peach Bowls, a Cotton Bowl, and consecutive Outback Bowls during this run, while missing bowl season in '05 and '08. While nothing happened instantaneously, the LSU loss was the dividing line of the Fulmer Era, just seven days after one of its greatest victories. It signaled the end of UT's run as an elite college football team, and was the beginning of the end for Phillip Fulmer...