In three and a half years of writing, first at SESB and for the last year at RTT, the most interesting source material, to me, came during the 2007 Tennessee Football season. From the opening kickoff on September 1 to the final whistle on January 1, every week was a different challenge and produced a different emotion. In the same season, we witnessed the worst loss of the Fulmer Era, and were two throws away from upsetting the eventual National Champions and winning the SEC. The journey between those two events during the fall of 2007 was and is unlike any season I've ever seen before in Knoxville.
Today we look back at some of the steps along the way, as we begin our month-long countdown of the Top 10 Tennessee moments of the decade with the best roller coaster ride of the last ten years:
DOWN: Cal gets revenge
For the first time in 13 years, Tennessee lost the season opener. It wasn't just the loss, or the opponent - Cal was ranked 12th and playing at home, with the Vols ranked 20th. It was the way Tennessee's defense looked against a team the Vols had hammered the year before, and the way the Vols were humbled by a Pac-10 team (bonus points for nostalgia: check out Joel's meticulously-written postgame summary). Cal scored 45 points and gained 471 yards in a two touchdown win, and the fan base was forced to deal with an 0-1 start. It didn't take long for things to get worse.
DOWN: The worst loss of the Fulmer Era
After breaking a five year losing streak to Florida en route to the National Championship in 1998, the Vols and Gators played a string of nine incredibly competitive games. But in 2007, old demons were awakened again. Gone were Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel, but alive and well were Urban Meyer and Tim Tebow, and they did an impressive impersonation.
Florida jumped on Tennessee 28-6, but the Vols battled back with a touchdown just before halftime, and then a 96 yard pick six from a young freshman named Eric Berry. When the Vols finally got a defensive stop, Tennessee had the ball down 28-20 with five minutes to play in the third quarter. And then Florida unleashed the fury.
An Arian Foster fumble returned for a touchdown started it, and 24 fourth quarter points finished it. The Vols looked completely helpless in the final fifteen minutes, as Florida ran up the score because we didn't give them another option. The end result was a 59-20 Florida victory, the worst loss of the Fulmer Era and the worst for the Tennessee program since 1981. And again, the young defense felt the pain: 554 yards for the Gators on the heels of the Cal performance, meaning Tennessee had given up more than 100 points and more than 1,000 yards in their two losses. Stages of grief? Check.
UP: Fulmer at the crossroads
If 2007 is my favorite season to write about, Georgia is my favorite game. At a definitive crossroads, with the entire Tennessee program seemingly split about what to do with him, Phillip Fulmer came out of the corner swinging, and the Vols did this to the team that would ultimately finish second in the nation:
(The studio guy here sums it up well: "Tennessee spanks Georgia in the mouth!")
Four hours later, LSU beat Florida in Baton Rouge, and Tennessee was back in control of its own destiny.
DOWN: Welcome to the Third Saturday in October, Nick Saban
We didn't handle prosperity very well.
In all too familiar fashion, the Vols were pounded in Tuscaloosa by an eventual 6-6 Alabama team, 41-17, in Nick Saban's first season. The Tide rolled for 510 yards behind a career day from John Parker Wilson and a school record day from DJ Hall. Destiny returned to Florida's hands, and the masses returned to their pitchforks in Knoxville.
UP: South Carolina, first half
Pitchforks were temporarily put on hold when destiny returned to Knoxville, via the rarest of rare feats in college football: Georgia dominated Florida, giving the Gators their third SEC loss and putting the winner of the Tennessee/South Carolina game later that night in first place. The Vols responded to Georgia's win with a 21-0 halftime lead over Carolina, and all seemed well.
DOWN: South Carolina, second half
The Gamecocks became the third team to gain over 500 yards against the Vols, and got almost all of it in the final thirty minutes. Carolina tied the game at 21-21 with eleven minutes to play, then took the lead on a 49 yard field goal with 1:24 to play. The Vols moved in position to answer in spite of themselves - an Arian Foster fumble was recovered by a hustling offensive lineman, and a false start penalty on Daniel Lincoln's tying kick forced a second attempt - but somehow, the Vols managed to get the game to overtime...
UP: South Carolina, overtime
...where Tennessee made one, South Carolina missed one, and somehow, the Vols were in first place in the SEC East.
With Georgia even in the loss column, the Vols would need to win out against Arkansas, Vanderbilt and Kentucky to get to Atlanta. Given the play of Tennessee's defense, nothing was guaranteed.
UP: The Heisman shutdown
In 2006, Arkansas ran all over the Vols, and the '07 Vol defense had given little indication that things would be different. But while Darren McFadden would get his 117 yards, many of them came with the game already out of reach. The Vols locked down Arkansas in the first half, picked up three turnovers and scored 34 points in a surprising three touchdown victory.
UP: Because it's what Vanderbilt does
The Dores made it interesting on Senior Day...but because they're Vanderbilt, they found a way to blow a 24-9 second half lead, as the biggest 4th quarter comeback in Neyland Stadium history ensued, with the Vols coming from down 15 to a 25-24 victory when Vandy bounced a field goal off the upright.
BOTH: The final step to Atlanta
A win streak sitting at 22 in a row against the most talented Kentucky team of the decade? Two separate 17 point leads that the Vols would later blow? A chance from the one yard line to win for UK with eight seconds left? Four overtimes? The difference between winning the division and no job security? All here.
When the smoke cleared in Lexington, a Tennessee team that had been thrashed by their two biggest rivals after losing the season opener stood alone as the champion of the SEC Eastern Division.
DOWN: Erik Ainge throws it away
Against the eventual National Champions, the underdog Vols came to fight. Tennessee had a 14-13 lead in the 4th quarter, and had kept LSU at bay all day in the SEC Championship Game. But just as we were starting to really believe, the bad karma of orange pants and the Georgia Dome mainfested itself in Erik Ainge's right arm.
First, he threw a pick six that gave LSU a 21-14 lead. Then, with the Vols driving into the LSU red zone in the final minute with a chance to tie, Ainge threw a second interception. Neither of them were good decisions, and both of them handed the SEC title to LSU. It left a bitter tase in the mouth of the Tennessee family...after everything we'd seen in 2007, it was the first time we'd had our hearts truly broken at the end.
UP: The right finish
The Vols returned to the Outback Bowl on January 1, 2008, playing Wisconsin. And Ainge found some level of atonement in his final appearance in a Tennessee uniform, throwing for 365 yards as the Vols held on late for a 21-17 win. The 14 game marathon ended with Tennessee at 10-4, champions of the Eastern Division and carrying a full load of both good and bad memories. The mood swings in a single season have never been so dramatic, but overall the year left us with the final positive memories of the Phillip Fulmer era, and the third division title of the decade.