Tennessee played one bad half in 1995, and it cost them a shot at the National Championship. Leading 30-14 late in the second quarter in Gainesville, the Vols and new defensive coordinator John Chavis watched the Gators rip off six consecutive touchdowns in an eventual 62-37 loss. Florida never looked back, finishing 12-0 with their third straight SEC title and a spot in the Fiesta Bowl to play for the National Championship.
The Vols would rebound well, winning their next six games 52-14, 31-0, 49-31, 41-14, 56-21 and 42-0. When the Vols survived a couple of scares from Kentucky (34-31) and Vanderbilt (12-7), they were 10-1 and ranked fifth in the nation. Before the days of the BCS and at-large bids, the second best team in the SEC went to the Citrus Bowl, and the Vols eagerly accepted the bid to Orlando.
Meanwhile, controversy appeared to be brewing all season long, as Nebraska, Florida and Ohio State were compiling undefeated and dominant seasons. After beating Penn State 28-25 on the first weekend of October, the Buckeyes shredded their next six opponents, with no team coming within 10 points of them. In their final two home games, they beat Illinois and Indiana by a combined 83-6 margin. At 10-0 the Buckeyes were ranked #2 and had an inside track to the title game.
Along the way, Eddie George was following in the footsteps of other great OSU backs. He ripped off three 200+ yard games in 1995, including an incredible 314 yards against Illinois. He would finish the regular season just short of the mythical 2,000 yard mark at 1,927, with 24 touchdowns. Everything appeared to be going right for the Buckeyes.
But against John Cooper's personal nemesis, it all fell apart. Michigan welcomed the undefeated Buckeyes to Ann Arbor in the final game of the regular season, and Michigan RB Tim Biakabutuka turned in one for the ages. He had 195 yards rushing at halftime, and finished with 313 on the day as Michigan answered every Ohio State score with one of their own. When a young freshman named Charles Woodson intercepted Bobby Hoying on the game's final drive, Michigan had secured a 31-23 victory, and Ohio State's dream season was dashed - Michigan took their undefeated season and the Big 10 Championship away.
Their consolation prize was a date with the Vols in Orlando, where two teams who were one step away from the National Championship would meet on January 1, 1996.
12. 1995: #5 Tennessee 20 - #4 Ohio State 14 (Citrus Bowl)
Eddie George would still win his Heisman Trophy for that incredible season, and he wasn't the only threat the Buckeyes had. This might be the most talented team the Vols ever faced in the Fulmer Era - aside from the Heisman winner who would go on to an All-Pro career in Nashville, '95 Ohio State featured Terry Glenn at WR and Rickey Dudley at TE, with future #1 overall pick Orlando Pace on the offensive line and Bobby Hoying under center. The defense included Mike Vrabel and Shawn Springs. These guys weren't just college good, they were NFL good, and until the Michigan game their season showed it.
But I'll say this too: the '95 Vols would give any Fulmer Era team a run for their money. Peyton Manning was fully into his own as a sophomore, and would set an NCAA record for completion/interception ratio, with only 4 INTs on the entire season. The Vols had the vaunted Joey Kent/Marcus Nash combo at wide receiver, with Jay Graham running behind three NFL offensive linemen in Jason Layman, Jeff Smith and Bubba Miller.
The defense was equally good, with Leonard Little anchoring the line, and two highly underappreciated linebackers - Tyrone Hines and Scott Galyon - who don't get their due because the group that came in after them (Al Wilson, Raynoch Thompson, Eric Westmoreland) would be even better. The starting secondary of DeRon Jenkins, Terry Fair, Raymond Austin and Tori Noel was one of UT's best in the Fulmera Era.
So two loaded teams who could've/should've played for it all instead played each other...but as the new year dawned in Orlando, a new storyline quickly took over.
The game kicked off at 1:00 PM, but it started raining the night before. And by rain, I mean ruin-your-vacation torrential flooding. My parents and I - I was a freshman in high school - got in a quick trip to Universal Studios the day before, but the morning of the game you couldn't walk outside your motel room just to put something in the car and step right back in without needing an entire change of clothes. All the other Tennessee rain games - '92 Florida, '01 Arkansas, '02 Florida - have to be understood in the context of this one, because here it rained for so long before kickoff, and then somehow got worse right when the game began. Our seats were on the top row of the upper deck at the Citrus Bowl, directly underneath one of the light towers, and I spent most of the first half worried about lightning strikes instead of football.
Neither offense could worry much about football in this weather either. So when Eddie George punched in from a yard out for the game's first score, and the Buckeyes moved to first and goal in the second quarter, Vol fans began to worry that those who'd said that all Ohio State had to do was show up to win were right.
Those who were too young or weren't following the Vols in the mid-90s know they missed out on Peyton, Leonard Little and several other memorable players. But I submit for your approval, the one and only Bill Duff.
(Note the section on "undefeated in bar fights")
Though slimmed down for his stint as the host of Human Weapon, Duff was a defensive tackle at Tennessee, where he would eventually become a team captain for the '97 SEC Champions. He's easily the best postgame interview subject in Vol Network history, offering such gems as:
- Jimmy Hyams: "Do you think you played really well today, or is Ole Miss just really that bad?"
- Bill Duff: "I'd have to say both, Jimmy."
As a sophomore in '95 (and before he shaved his head), Duff was at the center of the play that changed this game around. The Buckeyes were stopped and faced 4th and goal at the 1, and since you've got the Heisman winner in your backfield and points are at a premium in the downpour, you go for it. John Ward says:
"Here's the give to George, I don't know sir! I do not know! Tennessee POUNDS him at the line, and it was Bill Duff, at the bottom of the heap...he-did-not-makeit!"
It's one of the great tragedies of YouTube that the video of this play doesn't exist, because Duff comes flying out of the pile after the stop at the one, screaming like an absolute madman in a full sprint back to the sideline, and would spend the next two years living up to that image.
Still, the rain came down and Ohio State still led 7-0. With time winding down in the half, the Buckeyes punted and the Vols got the ball at the 20 with :43 on the clock. Surely not enough time in this weather to do anything, right? The Vols got an immediate first down with an eleven yard gain, and on the next play, decided to try and catch Ohio State's prevent defense off guard:
No one, and I mean no one, made more big runs in big games than Jay Graham. His incredible balance on this play pulled the Vols even at halftime. When the rain died down just a bit, the Vols took their first drive of the second half and went right back to the big play:
In just over two minutes of gametime, Tennessee scored two touchdowns on two big plays. Now the question remained, would it be enough?
On an increasingly sloppy track (Ohio State fans will demand that I mention that Tennessee players wore cleats that may not have been "standard issue" in this game...but you know...), Ohio State still found a way to tie it on a pass from Bobby Hoying to Rickey Dudley early in the 4th quarter. Deadlocked at 14-14, the game seemed destined to hinge on one mistake.
Instead, Ohio State made three of them. After stopping Tennessee to get the ball back, the Buckeyes fumbled. Tennessee recovered and Jeff Hall knocked in a 29 yarder in the rain to put the Vols on top 17-14. On their next drive, Eddie George fumbled. Tennessee recovered, got tantalizingly close to putting the game away, but stalled at the eight yard line. Fulmer sent Hall back onto the field, and he hit another one, giving Tennessee a 20-14 lead but still giving Ohio State a chance to win.
Ohio State drove into Tennessee territory with under two minutes to play. Now, if I'm John Cooper, and I've got the Heisman winner in the backfield, Terry Glenn (7 catches, 95 yards on the day) at wideout and it's raining like the world is ending, the last thing I'm going to do is try to run the option. But perhaps that's why Jim Tressel is the coach in Columbus now. The Buckeyes ran the option and Hoying badly mistimed the pitch, sending the ball spinning free on the turf for the Vol defense to pounce on it. Three drives, three chances to win, three fumbles...and the Vols gleefully ran out the clock, and took home the victory.
The postgame chants of "EDDIE WHO?" didn't come because George was completely shut down; despite his costly fumble he finished with 101 yards and a touchdown (though well below his season average of 152 yards per game). They came instead for the MVP, who rushed for 154 yards on 26 carries, giving Jay Graham the second highest rushing yardage total in a bowl game in Tennessee history (later broken by Travis Henry's 180 against Kansas State in 2000, both well behind Chuck Webb's insane 250 in the Cotton Bowl following the 1989 season).
Graham won the day over his Heisman counterpart, and just as importantly, a big statement was made by the Tennessee defense. In John Chavis' first season as defensive coordinator, Tennessee's effort against Florida gave him no job security and plenty of haters. But by season's end, Chavis couldn't have been more proud of a unit that shut down an equally powerful offense in an Orlando downpour. With this win and Nebraska's assassination of Florida in the title game, the Vols finished the year ranked third in the AP, second in the coaches' poll. Outside of the National Championship, this is Fulmer's most decorated bowl victory.