Freshmen quarterbacks will make mistakes. That's just a given in college football, and especially in the SEC. Fans generally accept learning curves, and at Tennessee are accustomed to seeing great success from sophomores: two of the best Vol teams of the Fulmer Era were led by sophomore quarterbacks who matured after starting as freshmen, Peyton Manning in 1995 and Casey Clausen in 2001.
So when Phillip Fulmer announced that the mantle was being passed to incoming freshmen Erik Ainge and Brent Schaeffer during fall camp in 2004, fans were both excited and understandably nervous. Ainge and Schaeffer were given instant opportunity over CJ Leak and Rick Clausen, both with some game experience. We knew there would be a learning curve, but were also excited - the 2004 season opener against UNLV remains the 4th highest attended game in Tennessee Football history, just for the chance to see Ainge and Schaeffer in their first action.
Beating UNLV was no surprise. But what the duo did in leading the Vols to victory against Florida - still to come on our countdown - broke the perception that it was going to take time. When Tennessee beat the Gators 30-28 behind a combined 19 of 28 for 232 yards and 3 TDs from the two freshmen, the talk on campus the very next Monday was about how we could possibly keep two quarterbacks both destined to win the Heisman Trophy happy on the same team at the same time.
Two weeks later, Ainge and Schaeffer proved they were still freshmen after all.
Against what would become the undefeated Auburn juggernaut, the Vols were ambushed 34-10 at Neyland Stadium - 31-3 at halftime - and watched Ainge turn the ball over five times and Schaeffer go 1 for 5 with an additional INT. In the blink of an eye, the Vols went from frontrunners to a team with a shaky defense (400 yards for the Tiger offense) and two suddenly shaky freshmen quarterbacks.
But what Auburn did to Tennessee wasn't the biggest statement in the SEC on October 2.
About three hours earlier and four hours down the road, Georgia met defending National Champion LSU. And in what might be the most impressive win in Mark Richt's career, the Dawgs decimated the Tigers 45-16 between the hedges. Georgia rolled up 430 yards of offense, David Greene threw five touchdown passes and Danny Ware ran for over 100 yards.
So while the Vols were coming back down to reality, Georgia skyrocketed to #3 in the polls, and with Tennessee having beaten Florida and then having been exposed by Auburn, there appeared to be no question as to who the best team in the SEC East was, and the Dawgs had an inside track on what would've been their third straight division title. What's more, Georgia had beaten the Vols four years in a row and were coming off a landmark blowout victory in Neyland Stadium from the previous year. All signs pointed to another Georgia victory and another Georgia appearance in the SEC Championship Game. Vegas declared the Dawgs 12 point favorites playing between the hedges, and Tennessee's two freshmen quarterbacks had to pick up the pieces in the least likely environment, in their first road game ever.
The Vols may have won a couple games where they were greater underdogs, but in terms of anyone - media, fans, anyone - actually believing or giving them a chance to win, I'm not sure there's ever been a greater difference in the Fulmer Era between what everyone thought was going to happen and what actually took place on the field than on this day in Athens, October 9, 2004.
11. 2004: #17 Tennessee 19 - #3 Georgia 14 (Athens)
The student ticket lottery for away games still hates me to this day. Every year on campus I came with my student ID and my hopes, and every year I was turned away every single time. I never hit the lottery - I was never even an alternate. But I had lots of friends who didn't care about football as much as I did.
So I'd been to Athens twice before. In 2000 I sat on the front row and almost got to watch the goalposts come down, but my friend and I ran for our lives just beforehand. In 2002 I sat high above the earth and watched a valiant effort from a defense trying to support CJ Leak and James Banks at quarterback fall just short. Both times, the Georgia fans I encountered cemented their reputation with me as my least favorite fanbase to deal with. To me, Georgia has always been the little kid at the adult table - since the SEC expanded in 1992, four of us have won National Championships and Auburn has had a pair of undefeated seasons with no trophy to show for it. The Dawgs can claim neither, but they always wanted to believe they belonged in the same sentence with Alabama, Florida, LSU and Tennessee. Now that we've sent our head coach packing and our own status at the adult table is in question, the joke isn't so funny.
So someone else hits the lottery in 2004 and I gladly accept the tickets, and then have to tell just about everyone I know that yes, I'm still going even after the events of the Saturday before. In every way, you can tell that no one is giving us a chance, including 99.9% of the Tennessee fans. Until the events of 2008, this was the lowest turnout from Tennessee fans I've ever seen at an away game, ever. This time we're on the second row with red arrogance all around us and four years of frustration behind us, huddled together like a band of brothers hoping for the impossible. Because it's always more dramatic when you're actually there.
The opening drive sets the tone. The Vols get the kickoff and face 3rd and 13 and a semi-deafening roar. Ainge hits Derrick Tinsley down the sideline for a first down. Then they face 4th and 1 at the Georgia 33. Ainge hits Cory Anderson for a first down. Then it's 3rd and 9 three plays later. Ainge hits Bret Smith for a touchdown.
If Georgia gets a stop on any of those plays, I think they win this game. But as they didn't, the Vols scored a dramatic first blow...and that was enough to make the Vols and everyone wearing orange believe they could get the job done. And at this point, Ainge is in the driver's seat.
The Tennessee defense responds with a three and out, and the offense responds with three points and a stunning 10-0 lead after two drives. The Vols may not have had the horses to run away from Georgia, but the Tennessee defense made sure that the Dawgs were going to earn everything they got. David Greene had been sacked four times in four games coming into this one. The Vols got him four times in one afternoon.
The UGA offense was so stagnant that DJ Shockley was called on to give them some life, and he did, making a great throw for a touchdown to make it 10-7. James Wilhoit would answer with a 51 yard field goal that had room from about 60 to make it 13-7 at the half, which helped make up for the fact that Wilhoit missed two shorter first half attempts that could've given the Vols more room to breathe.
In the third quarter, the Tennessee defense kept refuting the notion that Georgia was just going to flip a switch and pull away. When Gerald Riggs fumbled at the UT 13, it looked like that was getting ready to happen. Instead, the defense surrendered just one yard, and then Andy Bailey shanked a 29 yarder to keep it at 13-7. The defense played the entire third quarter just one play away from giving up the lead, but never did. Greene would finish the day just 15 of 34 for 163 yards. This is also the definitive Jesse Maholena game at Tennessee. The Hawaiian DT was at his best here, with two sacks and a forced intentional grounding.
Looking for another spark, late in the third quarter Richt called for the fake punt (in the postgame, Richt said "I never should've done that.") and the Vols were all over it, with Kevin Burnett reading it cold and stuffing it. From there, Ainge put Tennessee in position as the game moved to the 4th quarter, and found Chris Hannon for the score, giving Tennessee a 19-7 lead. Ainge on the day was brilliant for a freshman in his first hostile environment: 12 of 21, 150 yards, 2 TDs, no mistakes. A large portion of his responsibilty was handing off to Gerald Riggs, who ran for 102.
When the Dawgs were stopped 3 and out again and punted the ball back to the Vols with under 11:00 to play, the impossible seemed destined to happen. Tennessee drove into Georgia territory...but Wilhoit missed his third field goal of the day, keeping the score at 19-7 with seven minutes and change remaining.
Finally, the Dawgs woke up. Georgia went 13 plays and 66 yards to the end zone, Danny Ware on a bruising run to the corner, to make it 19-14. Tennessee needed first downs to run out the clock, but were stopped three and out when Fulmer refused to go for it on 4th and 1 near midfield.
So the Dawgs get it back at their own 13 yard line with 2:20 on the clock. And as the senior Greene came back onto the field, everyone wearing orange is thinking of the freshman Greene, who broke Vol hearts in 2001 with much less time to work with on the game's final drive. It would take a touchdown again here to do it.
And Greene appeared up to the task. He moved Georgia into Tennessee territory and used his final timeout, then hit Fred Gibson on a wild play to the UT 19, with Gibson diving out of bounds (and it's very questionable if he even got out of bounds) with :01 on the clock. One last play, one last chance to break Vol hearts and erase the upset.
As they had done all day, the Vols got great pressure from just the front four, and Greene had to throw off his back foot. To this day I'm not sure who he was throwing to - the ball made it to the end zone but the three nearest players were all wearing white. Jason Mitchell batted it down, there were no flags on the field...and the impossible was reality. 12-point underdogs, the Vols won 19-14 and erased four years of misery in one glorious afternoon.
Georgia fans were stunned. The small gathering of Tennessee faithful waited patiently for them to make their exit, with plenty of friendly exchange between the two sides. And it took a few minutes to realize this, lost in the celebration of having beaten the #3 team in the country on their home field and having ended Georgia's winning streak. But then when you remembered that the Vols had now beaten both Florida and Georgia...the Vols had done more than just get an upset. They had locked up the Eastern Division.
My favorite part of the day came driving home and listening to the Georgia postgame show on the radio. They play their lead-in music and the studio host says his introductory comments, and then they're gonna throw it to Hap Hines, who is the only former kicker I know of who is now a lead analyst. Hap, your thoughts?
"When I woke up today, it felt like Christmas morning. Everything was right, everything was great, things were going to go our way. This was our year. And now, Tennessee comes in, and not only have they stolen all of our presents, but they stole the #*&@ tree!"