There is real truth behind the notion that against your biggest rivals, you throw the records out the window and the game takes on a greater significance no matter how things are going for either team. For the Vols, that biggest rival will always be Alabama, and the Third Saturday in October will always be special.
There have been more important Third Saturdays - during Phillip Fulmer's tenure, the Vols and Tide met three times with both teams ranked in the Top 10. There have been more surprising Third Saturdays - take your pick of Alabama's 9-6 win in 1990 or their 6-3 win in 2005. And whenever both teams decide to quit screwing around and win their divisions in the same season, a Tennessee/Alabama SEC Championship Game will add yet another layer of passion and pride to this rivalry - of everything in the world of sports that I haven't seen happen before, a date with the Tide in Atlanta is alone at the top of the list.
In 2003, Mike Hamilton faced his first real stress as Tennessee's athletic director. Before Randy Sanders and Buzz Peterson had to be let go, before Rod Delmonico was removed from the baseball program, and before the unprecedented events of the 2008 season, Hamilton watched a football season turn from promising to disastrous in two weeks.
The Vols got the bad taste of the 8-5 2002 season out of their mouths by winning at Florida for the second time in a row, 24-10 over the Gators. When the Vols followed that up with an overtime win over South Carolina, Tennessee was 4-0 and ranked 7th in the nation.
The Vols went to Auburn and dug themselves a 21-0 hole that they almost climbed out of, before losing 28-21. Having already beaten Florida though, the merit of the season would fall on the Georgia game the following week, with the winner in all likelihood taking the SEC East and advancing to Atlanta.
In Knoxville, the Vols were down 13-7 but driving at the end of the half. At the Georgia three yard line, the Vols botched a handoff exchange, Georgia scooped it up and raced 97 yards to the end zone in one of the most dramatic turn of events in Tennessee Football history. The floodgates engaged in the second half, and Georgia rolled the Vols in Neyland Stadium, 41-14.
The off week that followed was the longest I can ever remember. The Vols fell from 7th to 22nd in the polls, and the memories from 2002 were suddenly fresh once more. For the first time ever, Phillip Fulmer's seat was a little warm. Randy Sanders' was getting hot. And the Vols went to Tuscaloosa to try and pick up the pieces.
Alabama was down in 2003, but had broken Tennessee's seven year win streak the year before. And as they say, you throw out the records.
What unfolded that Saturday in T-Town was not only one of the most important wins in Phillip Fulmer's career, but it also turned into one of the most dramatic Third Saturdays of all time as the evening wore on. Regulation would not be enough, and both teams would be forced to go the distance on October 25, 2003...
15. 2003: #22 Tennessee 51 - Alabama 43 (5 OT) (Tuscaloosa)
Tennessee has played three of these multiple overtime games, and I've been fortunate enough to be at each of them. Before we get to that part though, a word from Phillip Fulmer in the pregame locker room:
"I can stand up here and scream and yell, Johnny can go around and scream and yell, but I'm telling you, it comes from your heart. Now, what do you want? You want another team meeting after the game? Or do we wanna be in here singing in the locker room, like a Tennessee football team is supposed to. I'm not trying to motivate you, it's a fact. All you guys that haven't stepped up yet, to play Tennessee football, now's the time. Now is the time, if I'm looking you in the eye, I'm talking to you. Now is the time. Believe it. Go take what you want."
This was the first real brush with consistent frustration for Fulmer; the Vols had gone 8-6 in their last 14 games at this point. Back in '03 none of us were ready to believe anything about a talent dropoff, so the Vols were carrying an underachiever label, and it was getting bigger every day following the blowout loss to Georgia. This game would determine the direction of the rest of the season - win and stay relevant, lose and you're in a complete tailspin with two consecutive bad years.
Fulmer's impassioned speech didn't seem to make any difference early. Alabama outkicked the Vols in the first half and took a 6-3 lead into the locker room, and the studio crew at CBS called the first half "unwatchable". But it didn't take long for things to get interesting in the second half: on the Vols' opening drive of the third quarter, Tennessee drove to the Alabama 25, and then on 3rd down replaced Casey Clausen with James Banks at quarterback. Banks took off on the QB draw, breaking several tackles en route to the end zone and a 10-6 lead.
When Brodie Croyle was picked off and the Vols added three on the subsequent drives, it appeared that momentum was squarely back with the Vols. But then Croyle went deep on a 40 yard TD pass, and the game was tied again at 13-13 heading to the fourth quarter.
Back in the first half, Alabama had first and goal at the two, couldn't get in and Jason Allen blocked a field goal. With 8:30 to play in the game, Alabama had first and goal at the five. They moved the ball to the one and a half, and Mike Shula - who would in years later be heavily criticized for not going for it in situations like this one - sent the offense back onto the field on 4th down. Shaud Williams got the call, but had no chance against Parys Haralson, barely getting back to the line of scrimmage.
Three plays later, the Vols fumbled the ball right back to Alabama. This time, the Tide capitalized and took a 20-13 lead. When Alabama's defense stopped the Vols three and out, Fulmer chose to punt and put the game in the hands of his defense. The Tide had the ball at their own 27 with 3:00 to play, still leading 20-13.
A penalty on first down gave Alabama 1st and 2, which appeared to doom the Vols. But the Tide went no further, thanks to one big hit from Dominique Stevenson and one bad spot on 3rd and 2. Tennessee stopped the clock with 2:00 to play, Alabama had 4th and inches at their own 37, and Mike Shula chose to punt. The Vols were pinned at their own 13 yard line.
The quickest way to get my blood pressure up is to say that Casey Clausen wasn't a good quarterback. It's a subject for another post probably, but I think Casey is the most underappreciated Vol of my lifetime. He's second to Peyton Manning in just about every Tennessee passing category, he beat Florida twice (something no Vol QB in my 27 years can say), and the kid was just a flat winner. Never was that more evident than in everything that happened in this game from this point on.
From the 13 yard line, Clausen hit James Banks for 14 yards and a first down. Then he hit Chris Hannon upfield into Alabama territory. Then he found a wide open Troy Fleming to the Alabama 25. Then he hit Mark Jones on the quick out, who broke tackles down to the two yard line. 85 yards in 7 plays in less than a minute, in the most hostile of environments (Alabama had never beaten Tennessee in Tuscaloosa, the game used to be played in Birmingham), with everything on the line. One more completion from the 2 to Fleming for the touchdown tied the game.
But the effectiveness almost came back to bite the Vols. Tyrone Protho returned the kickoff 38 yards, then got 15 more on a facemask penalty. That gave Alabama a 45 yard field goal attempt with :04 left. I was sitting behind some Alabama fans, beside myself that we'd just given the game away on special teams. "Don't worry," they said. "He (kicker Brian Bostick) will never make it." And he didn't. And we're off to overtime.
The Vols went first, and Clausen hit Derrick Tinsley, who got rocked in the end zone but held onto the ball, giving Tennessee a 27-20 lead. The Vols looked to end it there, forcing Bama to a 4th and goal at the 6. But Croyle went up top for Dre Fulgham, who made a sensational catch over Jason Allen, tying the game at 27 and sending it to a second overtime.
Alabama turned to the fresh legs of Tim Castille, who scored in the second OT to put Bama on top 34-27. When Alabama sacked Clausen to open the Vols' session and then Casey fired incomplete, suddenly Tennessee faced 4th and 19 at the Alabama 34.
During the timeout before 4th down, Alabama fans were in a frenzy, and I was trying to figure out if Randy Sanders would survive the ensuing week. But then Casey Clausen saved the day again:
Opposing coaches should've noted that the Vols ran a variation of this play just about every time they faced 4th and long in both the Cutcliffe and Sanders administrations. CJ Fayton's catch gave the Vols life, and then Clausen...well, it wasn't one of his best decisions, but it paid off. Evading a sack, he fired into triple coverage in the end zone. Had Bama picked it off, it's game over...but the ball bounced off one defender, and into the hands of James Banks for a touchdown. 34-34, and we keep playing.
Also in the Tennessee playbook is the tendency to go for the end zone on the first play of an overtime. The Vols did it twice against Arkansas the previous year, and would do it once more against Kentucky in 2007. To start the third overtime in Tuscaloosa, Clausen hit James Banks down the left sideline for a score.
But the Vols missed the two, and Alabama kept shuffling tailbacks. Shaud Williams returned to score from 15 yards out - Williams finishes the night with 40 carries for 167 yards - and now the two point conversion would win it. Croyle looked for the quick strike on a three step drop, but Jabari Greer stepped in front and intercepted it...and we headed to overtime number four.
On a personal note, this will always be one of my favorite games that I saw in person, because I went down to Tuscaloosa with one of my closest friends, who was a lifelong Alabama fan. We knew our friendship wouldn't survive us sitting together, so I stayed in our seats in the Tennessee section in the upper deck, and he went and hid behind the tuba section of The Million Dollar Band, where he could smoke cigarettes without being noticed. As these overtimes played on, we could see each other...and in between each session, we'd both just look at each other and shrug our shoulders, essentially saying "...I guess we'll just keep playing." He passed away the following year, and this was the only time he ever made it to Bryant-Denney Stadium. It would be a betrayal of my integrity to say that I wish the outcome had been different for him, but it was without a doubt memorable either way.
Both teams kicked field goals in the 4th OT, tying the game at 43-43 and sending it to the fifth. This time Tennessee went to the bench and found Corey Larkins, whose fresh legs (4 OT carries for 44 yards) set up Clausen's quarterback sneak for the score. A fade to James Banks for two produced a great catch and finally, a comfortable lead: 51-43, meaning the best Bama could do was tie in their overtime session.
The Tide ran three times and got eight yards, setting up 4th and 2 at the 17 yard line. Shula elected to pass and Croyle went for the end zone, but perhaps the moment was finally too much for the weary Tide: Croyle went for Fulgham, and the pass was batted away by Alabama native Jason Allen, with Fulgham running two yards out of bounds and ineligible to catch it anyway. Vol fans exhaled, Alabama fans hung their weary heads, and the Vols were the survivors, 51-43 in five overtimes.
I gave my friend a hug as soon as I saw him in the concourse - that's the difference between Alabama and Florida, because I'd never respect the Gators enough for that. Neither team deserved to lose, but the Vols simply had one more play in them, and escaped Tuscaloosa with the win. Casey Clausen finished with 283 yards, 4 TDs and 0 INTs. The Arkansas game may have gone longer and been equally as dramatic, but the fact that this was Alabama easily makes this game better.
It was more important to the season too - the Vols responded from this victory to not only save Randy Sanders' job for another two seasons, but to stun Miami two weeks later.
There have been plenty of great Tennessee-Alabama games. But this one stands unique, on a night when both proud programs who had seen better years gave their all and then some...and the Vols were the last men standing.