If we were compiling the opposite of this list, trying to find the worst losses of not only Phillip Fulmer's administration, but through all of almost 120 years of Tennessee Football, to me there's only one place that list can end: December 8, 2001 in Atlanta. The Georgia Dome has always been a house of horrors for the University of Tennessee, and that was never more true on that night.
Seven days removed from one of the biggest wins in the history of the program, having finally beaten second-ranked Florida in Gainesville for the first time in thirty years, and now sitting at number two in the polls ourselves with a guaranteed ticket to Pasadena in hand, ready to face #1 Miami to play for our second National Championship in four years...all Tennessee had to do was punch the ticket. Doing that meant beating a team you'd already bested once that season, en route to winning your third SEC Championship in five years.
Doing that seemed even more obvious when the Vols took a ten point lead, and LSU lost their starting quarterback and their starting tailback to injury. At halftime, one of the guys we went down with was running up and down the aisles of the Georgia Dome with a rose in his mouth, and my friends and I were discussing how many people you could put in an RV and how many ways to split the cost of traveling to California that way.
It was a slow death, like all great tragedies.
LSU kept kicking field goals, nothing to really worry about. They got the lead down to one going to the fourth quarter, 17-16. And you kept thinking that Tennessee's superior talent would take over, that this was our moment and this night was just another exercise in drama on the biggest stage yet.
And then, our superior talent fumbled. Twice in the fourth quarter. From the hands of our two best players, Travis Stephens and Donte' Stallworth. In between, our superior talent had 1st and goal at the 4 yard line, and couldn't get in. And as our defense hung their heads, exhausted from chasing a quarterback they weren't prepared for, the Tigers put the knife in. And it's probably still in there, twisting in us somewhere today. We were fifteen minutes away from playing for the National Championship again. That was eight years ago. And we haven't been that close since. LSU 31 - Tennessee 20.
The 2001 SEC Championship Game is the most heartbreaking loss in the history of Tennessee Football. I will argue this point to the death with anyone, and I will hate every minute of it.
Dejected, the Vols returned home. No title hopes, No rings, no conference championship, and because bowls are very much aware of how losses like this will affect a fanbase's desire to travel...no BCS. Instead, we found ourselves relegated to the Citrus Bowl. Again. And though the Vols did beat Spurrier that December and sent him on his way...the Ballcoach had to appreciate the irony.
Even the opponent was cruel. Because under any other set of circumstances, we would've loved this opportunity. We'd been waiting for this team for five years. There was no other non-conference foe we wanted a piece of more.
But our hearts were so broken, it didn't seem to matter. In the weeks leading up to the January 1 contest, the athletic department had to run ads in the Knoxville News-Sentinel, trying to remind people of the opportunity and how much we should care, and to essentially beg them to buy tickets.
Nothing seemed to work. Even the morning of kickoff, with a new year unfolding and one last chance to watch a great Tennessee team play, I found myself highly unmotivated, and mostly still numb. Really, I felt like I was still in the car driving back from Atlanta, and hadn't made it home yet.
And then the ABC telecast came on the air, and opened with a shot of a fan in maize and blue, holding up a sign that said: "CHARLES WOODSON: BETTER THEN - BETTER NOW."
And I was ready to care again.
25. 2001 - #8 Tennessee 45 - #17 Michigan 17 (Citrus Bowl)
Turns out the Vols were ready to care too.
On the list of great Fulmer teams, there's always the Manning era squads and obviously the '98 National Champions. And people forget Heath Shuler's '93 team, which still stands as the highest scoring offensive unit in school history.
But for my money, the '01 Vols would've stood toe-to-toe with any of them. And their talent on both sides of the ball was never more evident than on this day.
An offense paced by sophomore Casey Clausen and Travis Stephens in the backfield, who got his ring in '98 and then stuck around long enough behind Jamal Lewis and Travis Henry to post the best single season by a Tennessee back, and become a Doak Walker finalist. The most dangerous Vol wide receiver duo since Carl Pickens and Alvin Harper in Donte' Stallworth and Kelley Washington. And when Jason Witten was thrown into that group, you had arguably the most talented set of pass catchers on the field at the same time in Tennessee Football history.
Likewise, it's hard to argue that the group of Will Overstreet, Albert Haynesworth and John Henderson (featuring Bernard Jackson as "Godzilla" and Constantin Ritzmann as "The Germinator") isn't the best defensive line in school history. And the defensive backfield would send Andre Lott and Jabari Greer to the NFL. This team was good everywhere.
The Vols took a 3-0 lead, then John Henderson recovered a fumble by Michigan QB John Navarre. The Wolverines were committed to stopping Travis Stephens - apparently they'd seen the Florida tape. But that was fine with Casey Clausen.
Anyone - and I mean anyone - who wants to talk down about #7 and his time under center in Knoxville needs to find the tape of this game. Clausen hit Kelley Washington to give the Vols a 10-0 lead. On the next drive, he found Donte' Stallworth at the one yard line, and snuck it in himself to put the Vols up 17-0. When Michigan scored to make it 17-7, the Vols immediately answered with Clausen-to-Stallworth, again at the one yard line, which led to another Clausen TD, and the Vols led 24-7.
Michigan made it 24-10 at halftime, but any hopes of gaining momentum were squashed by Jason Witten. The perfect case study in the difference between Big 10 speed and SEC speed, the Vol tight end caught a pass from Clausen, and then outran the Wolverine defense 64 yards to the end zone. Next drive, Kelley Washington catches a screen pass and goes 37 yards to the end zone. Then Jabari Greer picked off Navarre, which led to a Travis Stephens score and a 45-10 jaw dropping lead.
Michigan got a garbage touchdown to account for the final seven as the clock wound down. But take a look at these numbers:
- Casey Clausen: 26 of 34, 393 yards, 5 total touchdowns, 0 INTs
- Donte' Stallworth: 8 catches, 119 yards
- Kelley Washington: 6 catches, 70 yards, 2 TDs
- Jason Witten: 6 catches, 125 yards, TD
Clausen's day still ranks as the 4th best in Vol history, which means it's the best by anyone not named Peyton Manning. The win tied, at the time, the Tennessee record for margin of victory in a bowl game (tied with the '86 Sugar Bowl against Miami, broken three years later with the 31 point win against Texas A&M). And this still remains the worst bowl loss in the history of Michigan Football.
A dozen years after the fact, and it's taken a combination of this win and Peyton Manning's Super Bowl ring to even begin to help me get over what happened in the '97 Heisman Trophy race. I still don't watch the ceremony anymore.
But we'll still take this win over any trophy, any day.
And besides, maybe this year, another defensive back will give me a reason to tune in...