The first time you really heard anyone voice the notion that the overall talent level in Knoxville had decreased was in 2003. An injury-plagued 2002 season that finished 8-5 looked more and more like lack of talent at times the following season, never more than when Georgia throttled the Vols 41-14 in Neyland Stadium.
The most glaring weakness was at the skill positions, where Cedric Houston, Jabari Davis and Derrick Tinsley were struggling to replicate the yardage of the Vol backs of the previous decade, while the Vols were playing with James Banks and Mark Jones at wide receiver and couldn't find a definitive go-to guy.
In 2002, despite the injuries, the Vols never looked more overmatched than they did against Miami in Knoxville. Casey Clausen couldn't count to two mississippi before the Canes were all over him, and Miami won a 26-3 game that wasn't that close. So when Tennessee made the return trip in 2003 at a shaky 6-2, the general thought was that, once again, Miami just had way too much talent.
The Canes won the National Championship in 2001 with what I still consider to be the best team of this decade. In 2002, their blowout of the Vols was one of many, though they stumbled at the finish line against Ohio State.
But 2003 would become the turning point of the decade, making this meeting between the Vols and Canes one of national and historical importance. Eventually, Southern Cal would share a national title with LSU in '03 before winning their own undisputed title the following season and playing for a third in '05. But before the torch could be passed, Miami had to go down.
The week before facing the Vols, Miami was 7-0 and #2 in the nation. They went to Blacksburg to face #11 Virginia Tech, and the Hokies turned in the textbook BeamerBall performance: a DeAngelo Hall fumble return for a TD in the first quarter, a 51 yard INT return for a TD in the third quarter, and one bomb from Marcus Vick turned into an inexplicable 31-0 lead. On the day, VT completed two passes and had 219 yards of total offense...but with 4 turnovers and 14 Miami penalties, they rolled the Canes 31-7.
And we had a blueprint for victory.
18. 2003: #13 Tennessee 10 - #4 Miami 6 (Orange Bowl)
The Canes were down but not out after having suffered their first regular season loss since September 2000. What's more, the Canes hadn't lost at the Orange Bowl since September 1999, carrying the nation's longest home winning streak into this one at 26 games.
The Vols were 6-2 and in a three way tie in the SEC East, having beaten Florida but having lost to Georgia. Each team would eventually win out and the tiebreaker would ultimately go to Georgia, but here on the second Saturday of November there was still plenty to play for.
However, old memories of Tennessee getting manhandled by Miami and fresh memories of the Vols struggling even in victory led most to believe that the Canes were going to be angry, and then they were going to take it out on Tennessee.
On a personal note, I had just started working at a bookstore in Knoxville this week, and so I couldn't get off that first Saturday. I scheduled my lunch break to try and catch the end of the game, and then anxiously bounced all over the walls in West Knoxville, unsure of what was in store.
The Vols punted on their opening drive, and Miami turned it into three points. Tennessee's second drive showed exactly what the Vols were going to do to try and get this thing done: 9 plays, 12 yards, 4:10 off the clock. Ugly, ugly football.
On the first play of the second quarter, Miami QB Brock Berlin fired an interception when Kevin Simon stepped in front of Roscoe Parrish. The Vols would turn that into three points of their own and tie the score.
Later in the second, the blueprint continued to come together when Miami roughed Dustin Colquitt on a punt, allowing a Tennessee drive to continue. Thanks to that penalty, this drive would become a 15 play, 53 yard, 10 minute epic. It might've been ugly, but it sure ended pretty.
After a 3rd and 12 completion to James Banks for a first down, Cedric Houston ran the Vols to 1st and goal at the 2. Two failed runs later, Randy Sanders tried the ol' bootleg...and whoever thought Casey Clausen was quick enough to beat the Miami defense to the corner was wrong.
So now with 4th and goal at the 3, Sanders showed some inspiration: an end around to Derrick Tinsley worked (and credit Fulmer for not kicking the field goal in one of his gutsiest calls ever), and the Vols had a 10-3 lead. Miami almost got it back in the final seconds of the half, but Jason Allen made a great play on a pass for Kellen Winslow, and the Vols took the lead into the locker room.
10-3 Tennessee was not what I expected to hear when I got in my car during the third quarter. Miami drove to the five yard line to open the third quarter, but couldn't get in, settling for a field goal that made it 10-6.
The Vols actually put together a pretty nice drive in response, but James Wilhoit shanked a 35 yard field goal. As the game moved to the fourth quarter, it became pure survival for Tennessee fans - could the Vols keep Miami out of the end zone all day, and protect this four point lead?
With 11:00 to play, Miami drove to the Tennessee 30, but Jason Mitchell blitzed and forced Berlin to fumble, and JT Mapu recovered. First bullet dodged.
On their next drive, Miami drove to the Tennessee 9 and had second and goal with 4:00 to play. It just seemed inevitable that eventually, these guys were gonna get in. But all day long, Chavis had been using corner and safety blitzes with great success, showing something very different for the Canes' offense. Here, he blitzed Mark Jones - who was still playing both ways - who hit Berlin's arm as he fired, and the ball instead found the hands of Gibril Wilson for an interception. Second bullet dodged.
At this point, my lunch break had been over for awhile, but after that INT I turned the radio off and headed back inside, hoping we could run 4:00 off the clock. The Vols did get one first down, but after draining Miami's timeouts were still forced to punt with 1:55 on the clock from their own 27 yard line.
We huddled around a TV in the back of the bookstore, while Jeff Francis on the sideline for the Vol Network joked "Well, we've often said Dustin Colquitt is Tennessee's best player...he's gonna get a chance to make a play."
First, let's notice that even without the fumble, Colquitt hit a 56 yard punt into the wind in a crucial situation, and teardropped it down on the sideline. Best punter in Tennessee history? I guarantee you no one has ever hit one more important than that.
Second, how about Derrick Tinsley? He scores the game's only touchdown, and then hustles downfield to make the critical recovery that would allow Tennessee to run out the clock. Miami's final three possessions go fumble, interception, fumble. The Vols dodged every bullet and made ugly look good, ending Miami's home winning streak and their stranglehold on college football, 10-6.
For the game, the Vols had 170 yards of total offense to Miami's 321. But the Vols won time of possession by six minutes, forced four Miami turnovers while never giving it away themselves, and just for good measure: 12 Miami penalties for 121 yards.
One player that was not penalized was Kellen Winslow, who had on his big boy voice after the game.
Awww, widdle Kellen. He's just precious.