In January 2007, I was having lunch at a restaurant in Wytheville, VA, about 45 minutes outside Blacksburg. Peyton Manning wouldn't win his Super Bowl for another few weeks, and Michael Vick was in trouble for a secret compartment in a water bottle. Two of the gentlemen at the table next to me were engaged in a conversation about the way the police were always out to get Vick.
And so with Manning's impending showdown with Tom Brady and New England in the AFC Championship Game on the horizon, these guys start talking about how Vick is a victim of circumstance, and is clearly the better and more exciting player. "Peyton Manning," the one guys says, "has never won anything in his life!"
Three weeks later, Manning had a Super Bowl ring. But most of us remember conversations like this one before that.
Manning is Tennessee's favorite son, but often times his college career is most remembered for the two things he didn't do: beat Florida, and win the Heisman Trophy.
Those outside the SEC can't fully understand Manning's role in turning the Alabama rivalry around and why that was of first importance to us. They look at his insane numbers and just group him with other gunslingers who picked up a ton of yards with an assist from four years under center and lots of talent around them. And especially when the Vols won the big prize the year after he left, the national majority was so quick to speak primarily of Manning by what he couldn't do, they forgot about what he actually did.
Conversations like that were exhausting, and I'm glad I don't have to have them anymore because everyone knows he won the Super Bowl. But what people should also remember is that those conversations about Manning never winning "the big one" should've never taken place at all...because on the first Saturday of December in 1997, he led the Vols to their first SEC Championship Game, and turned in the performance of a lifetime.
5. 1997 - #3 Tennessee 30 - #11 Auburn 29 (SEC Championship Game)
When the SEC went to its divisional format in 1992, the primary thought among Vol Nation at the time was "Now we'll get to play Alabama twice!" Seventeen years later, it still hasn't happened. In fact, nothing happened in December for the Vols in the first five years of the format. The Vols beat the Gators in 1992 but gave the division away in October, and then lost four straight to Florida from 1993-1996. The Gators were at their best under Steve Spurrier then, and left no room for error: the mid-90s Gators weren't losing to anybody, let alone two anybodies, which is what the Vols always needed after Florida took care of them in September.
So when Florida beat Peyton Manning and the Vols once again in September 1997, it looked once more like an all too familiar script: Tennessee would win out and be the Citrus Bowl bridesmaids for the third straight year.
But even though the Vols couldn't beat Florida...finally, someone else did.
First, LSU held on 28-21 in Death Valley over the #1 Gators in October. It was Florida's first SEC loss since 1994. Then, wonder of wonders, Georgia beat Florida for the first time in eight years in a stunning 37-17 Cocktail Party blowout. As the Vols had done their thing and beaten everyone else, suddenly the East Division was Tennessee's for the taking.
It wouldn't be easy, finishing with a duel with Tim Couch and a squeaker against Vanderbilt...but Manning led the Vols home, 10-1 on the year, and finally...finally, a spot in the SEC Championship Game.
More than that, the Vols had climbed back to #3 in the polls by the end of November. In the final year before the BCS, #1 Michigan was locked into the Rose Bowl, meaning #2 Nebraska needed an opponent in the Bowl Alliance National Championship Game. If the Vols could win in Atlanta, they'd go to the Orange Bowl to face Nebraska, knowing that if Ryan Leaf and Washington State could upset Michigan in Pasadena, they'd be playing for the National Championship.
The '97 SEC Championship was special for a number of other reasons. Alabama dominated the Western Division in its first few years much the same way Florida did in the East, with the Tide winning four of the first five years and Arkansas taking the other. But in 1997, Auburn broke through and would play in their first SEC title game as well.
Younger Vol fans may not know this, but Auburn used to be Tennessee's second biggest rival. The two teams played annually until 1991, when the rivalry was sacrificed for the divisional format. The two teams hadn't seen each other since, with the rotational schedule keeping them apart in the regular season until 1998. So when they met in Atlanta the year before, it was like two old friends, back together again. Seriously, imagine if all of a sudden, the SEC said "Alright, Tennessee and Georgia aren't going to play each other anymore," and then six years passed before we saw each other again, and then when we did the National Championship was on the line. This was a unique moment.
Because of all of that, this is probably the best atmosphere surrounding a game I've ever been to. Unlike home and away games, the SEC Championship is designed to be a split 50/50 crowd. In Tennessee's other appearances, one team has dominated the ticket sales with a distinct advantage. But on this night in Atlanta, the crowd was almost dead even, split right down the middle at the 50 yard line. Tennessee and Auburn, back together again and both in Atlanta for the first time...and for the Vols, a potential shot at the National Championship was sixty minutes away.
Tennessee came out of the gate like a team contending for the big prize should: Manning hit Peerless Price from 40 yards out on the opening drive, and the Vols went up 7-0 so quickly we were sure the night would belong to us.
But though we didn't know it yet, the Gods of the Georgia Dome had turned their back on Tennessee already.
It started with a 24 yard fumble return for an Auburn touchdown, tying the game. When Tennessee fumbled again, Auburn QB Dameyune Craig went up top for 51 yards and a go ahead score.
It was just the beginning: on the night, the Vols would turn the ball over a jaw-dropping six times.
More mistakes and inefficiencies led to two Auburn field goals. Jeff Hall added one of his own, but Auburn still led 20-10 at halftime. The National Championship talk had to be put on hold: the Vols came to Atlanta for a celebration, but found themselves in a dogfight.
Again, Tennessee performed well on the opening drive of the half, stopping Auburn quickly and then racing downfield on their opening possession of the third, finishing with Manning to Jermaine Copeland to make it 20-17. Everyone wearing orange breathed easy...surely Peyton had it under control.
But Auburn responded immediately - at 9-2 they weren't ranked 11th for nothing - and Craig hit Fred Beasley to again put the Tigers up ten points, 27-17. When the Vols turned it over again on the ensuing drive, every vibe in the building suggested that it just wasn't our night.
The defense deserves a lot of credit from here. They had given up big plays and watched the offense and the return game shoot themselves in the foot with alarming precision and frequency. But midway through the third quarter, the defense put its foot down and would allow Auburn's offense nothing more.
The defense returned the ball to the Tennessee offense after the fumble, and again Manning brought them home, again on a big play to Peerless Price from 46 yards away. This game was the passing of the torch from senior Marcus Nash (9 catches for 126) to the junior Price (8 for 161). The score brought Tennessee within four at 27-23, needing only the extra point...
But again...it's the Georgia Dome. Auburn blocked the PAT and ran it all the way back, picking up two points of their own and taking a field goal out of play. 29-23 Auburn, 1:06 left in the third. What else can go wrong?
In the fourth quarter, the UT defense stalled an Auburn drive, but the Tigers punted Tennessee deep in their own territory. After Jamal Lewis picked up a crucial first down, Manning fired a quick out to Marcus Nash on the sideline. Taking the torch back from Peerless for one last play, Nash made one move, broke one tackle, and was gone: 73 yards down the sideline. Six turnovers and a blocked PAT, but finally, finally...the Vols were in front, 30-29.
There was still plenty of time left for Auburn, but after forcing six turnovers of their own, the Tigers finally gave one away as the Georgia Dome smiled on the Vols for just a moment: Dameyune Craig scrambled near midfield but coughed it up, and the Vols pounced on it. It was Auburn's one and only turnover...but it was enough.
From there, Jamal Lewis went to work on a tired Auburn defense. He ground down the Tigers and the clock, finishing the night with 127 yards on 31 carries. The Vols ran Auburn out of timeouts, with Lewis picking up the final first down in the Auburn red zone. From there, Manning took a knee...and the Vols escaped, 30-29.
It was Tennessee's first SEC Championship in seven years, and Phillip Fulmer's first. It kept the Vols alive in the National Championship picture (though Michigan's win and Nebraska's domination would end all that talk), and should've helped Peyton Manning win the Heisman Trophy: in the biggest game of his life, Manning stayed cool when the Vols were fumbling everything away, and finished with 373 yards and 4 touchdowns, plenty good for MVP honors.
This game isn't as fondly remembered amongst the majority as the 2001 win over Florida, but what the Vols earned on this night was the next step they failed to take after beating the Gators: the SEC Championship, and a spot in the National Championship Game. On an evening that was just as dramatic in a different way, Tennessee overcame the Georgia Dome, a game Auburn team, and themselves, and captured Fulmer's first SEC Championship.
And Peyton Manning? He got his ring, his final win in a Tennessee uniform, and his proof: he won the big one.