1996 was supposed to be our year. As Peyton Manning made the first of his now nine appearances on the cover of Sports Illustrated, the magazine picked the Vols to win it all in their college football preview issue. Neyland Stadium had added a new upper deck and increased its capacity, making it (at the time) the largest on campus football stadium in America. The offense returned all the weapons from the 1995 campaign that finished at #2: Manning, Jay Graham, Joey Kent and Marcus Nash. Everything was set.
Teams that have never won a national championship in the current generation who buy into the "It's Our Year!" gimmick during preseason rarely pan out (see Georgia '08), and are in fact merely setting themselves up for massive disappointment. So it was when #2 Florida and #4 Tennessee met in Knoxville that year, with everyone in Knoxville geared up for "The Game of the Century" (so says a t-shirt buried deep in my childhood bedroom closet).
But for Florida, it was just another Saturday.
The Gators went for it on 4th down on their opening drive and scored a touchdown, and the game was over. Peyton Manning threw as many interceptions in the first half as he did in all of the 1995 season (4), and Florida was up 35-0 before you had time to blink. It's the first game I ever left early.
The Vols didn't quit, and scored a touchdown with ten seconds left to make it 35-29, but failed to recover an onside kick to seriously entertain thoughts of a miracle. Still, most people did what I did - saw the first 35 points and didn't care much about the next 29 - and Tennessee's dream season was destroyed.
But the Vols kept playing, kept winning. And by mid-October, Tennessee was still hanging around at #6 in the polls, still eager to earn a bid to the Bowl Allliance, a two year precursor to the BCS without the blessing of the Rose Bowl.
To do that, they'd have to get past their oldest rivals.
Alabama was undefeated, though the masses said they were untested and really not that good. The Tide's 7-0 start included zero wins over ranked teams, and too-close-for-comfort games against lesser foes like 21-7 over Bowling Green and 20-10 over Southern Miss. Still, 7-0 in mid-October was good for 7th in the polls, making this the last Tennessee-Alabama game played in Neyland Stadium that was nationally relevant for both teams.
On a gray and drizzling afternoon in Knoxville, Tennessee brought their talent and their newfound freedom from Alabama's winning streak (broken dramatically the year before) to try and get their first win over the Tide in Knoxville since 1984...
8. 1996: #6 Tennessee 20 - #7 Alabama 13 (Knoxville)
Bama may have been struggling for offense with Freddie Kitchens under center, but their defense had been outstanding all season leading up to this contest. The Vols, meanwhile, were averaging 39.2 points per game coming into this one, and after their 41 point outburst against the Tide the previous season, most thought their offense would once again have its way with the Tide defense.
The Vols tried to catch Alabama deep on the first play of the game, the same way they'd busted the Tide the previous year. This time, Marcus Nash bobbled the ball, and instead of six points the Vols had wasted a golden opportunity. And it would be the last one they saw in the first half.
Every fear in the back of Vol minds about Alabama's defense being truly this good came to life. The Tide stacked the line, denied Jay Graham and got a ton of pressure and contact on Manning. The Vols never established any rhythm in the first half, made lots of little mistakes, and as a result, scored zero points.
Alabama wouldn't fare much better, with just two first half field goals to make it 6-0 at the break. At halftime, most wearing orange felt it would still only be a matter of time before the Vol offense got going, and there was no way Alabama's offense could hurt them any further.
But then early in the third quarter, a Manning pass bounced off the helmet of an Alabama defensive lineman and into the air, and the Tide snatched it up. The ensuing touchdown suddenly made it 13-0 Alabama, and as the Crimson faithful in Neyland Stadium began to sing louder the same words to "Yea Alabama" Vol fans had heard repeatedly for the last dozen years, a cold reality was setting in: the Vols couldn't score, and Alabama - grinding away with tailback Dennis Riddle - appeared to be in complete control. At this point, it looked like one year of freedom from the Crimson oppressors was all Tennessee was going to get, and the home fans in Knoxville - including those like me who had never seen Tennessee beat Alabama - were going to have to wait, again.
When Alabama beat Tennessee in the late 80s and early 90s, they usually did it in especially heartbreaking fashion. And the closer the Vols seemed to be to victory, the better the Tide was at snatching it away. And so what makes this game so special is the way the Vols turned the tables, and spent the last quarter and a half doing to Alabama what the Tide had done to them for a decade: making every play, getting every break, and somehow finding a way to steal victory from an Alabama team that was sure they had it in hand.
Bogged down again near midfield late in the third, Alabama continued to blitz Manning. We'd been waiting all night for Manning to make them pay, and after taking countless hits, he finally pulled one off, firing a pass just in time to Joey Kent, who barely got his fingertips on it over the middle, but that was enough. When Kent made the catch and shed his defender to turn upfield, he was gone...and though it took three full quarters, the Vols finally had something to cheer about.
The joy was tempered when the Vols botched the extra point, still leaving them down seven points at 13-6. In the fourth quarter, despite Dennis Riddle's eventual career night of 38 carries for 196 yards, it was Freddie Kitchens who cost them. Terry Fair, who already had one interception on the night, stepped in front of a terrible decision and raced all the way home for the score...but a block in the back penalty negated the touchdown.
Still, the Vols had momentum and used it, driving to first and goal before Jay Graham did the dirty work from the five. Replays will show that Graham was clearly down at about the two and a half yard line, but you know, whatever. The Vols scored to tie it up, 13-13.
Again, Alabama threatened but could not score. The Vol defense gave Tennessee the ball back at their own 20 with less than two minutes to play. Overtime was brand new in 1996, and when the Vols ran Jay Graham for a one yard gain on first down, every single soul in Neyland Stadium braced themselves for the coming extra session. David Cutcliffe called the exact same play again on 2nd and 9, and would later say in the postgame that he was hopeful it would catch Alabama's defense off guard and pick up maybe 10 or 15 yards.
Instead, the biggest hole you've ever seen opened up on the right side of the line.
It is arguably the most famous run in Neyland Stadium history. Graham went straight through the line thanks to sensational blocking, and was only touched once, as a defender with a poor angle and no hope barely got a swipe at him. The picture on the front page of the News-Sentinel the next morning was a great shot of Graham running with De'Shea Townsend behind him, with a classic "oh no!" look on his face turning to see if anyone else was going to catch him.
79 yards in the blink of an eye, and the Vols went from playing for overtime to a 20-13 lead. No one - no one - made more big runs in big games than Jay Graham in a Tennessee uniform.
But Alabama wouldn't die.
Stuffed by the defense all night and with only a minute on the clock, Kitchens somehow completed a long pass to an open receiver, who broke free into Tennessee territory. And before you knew it, the Tide had the ball in the red zone with still plenty of time left.
That's when the defense dug in, with Tyrone Hines breaking up a 3rd down pass over the middle to create 4th and 9 at the 11 with :39 to play. Kitchens again dropped back, but Leonard Little proved he could only be slowed, not stopped. The Alabama tackle tried his best to get him out of Kitchens' path, but in an incredibly heady play, Little got his left hand free to knock the ball loose just as Kitchens' arm was coming forward, and the ball fell harmlessly to the turf. There's a great shot here of Bill Duff (#50) going crazy as the play ends.
Peyton Manning took a knee...and then it was done. 12 years of frustration in Neyland Stadium turned away by 20 minutes of good football, and for the first time in a long time, Alabama had the Vols right where they wanted them...and Tennessee won anyway. Tennessee 20 - Alabama 13.
The game was the pinnacle of the 1996 season; the Vols got as high as #4 in the polls and would've surely gone to the Bowl Alliance, but the Memphis upset three weeks later sent them back to the Citrus Bowl instead. Still, this was the game where most of us felt like everything changed against Alabama. It wasn't the blowout in Birmingham the year before that truly did it, it was this night in Knoxville, in front of our own eyes, where the Vols took Bama's best shot, and then gave them a dose of their own medicine. And I can't wait for both teams to get their act together at the same time in the same season again, because the Third Saturday hasn't been this good in Knoxville since.
(Video highlights from Decade of Dominance)