The 50 Best Games of the Fulmer Era - #3: At Last


If you think Alabama fans are hard to deal with now that they've beaten us two years in a row, you have no idea what it used to be like.

In a series defined by its winning streaks, the Vols took four straight from Alabama from 1982-1985.  Alabama started its own streak in 1986, and by the time the UT program entered its elite era (which we'll call 1989-2001), the Tide were waiting with wins in '87 and '88 in their pocket, and plenty of heartbreak left to go around.

Consider:

  • 1989:  #10 Alabama beats #6 Tennessee 47-30 in Birmingham, the Vols' only loss in an 11-1 season
  • 1990:  In what has to be one of the most difficult losses in UT football history, Alabama comes into Knoxville unranked and is given no chance against the undefeated #3 Vols.  The game agonizingly plays out as a field goal kicking contest, tied 6-6 late in the 4th.  When the Vols line up to kick the game winner in the final minute, Alabama blocks it, returns the block downfield, and kicks their own field goal to win 9-6 as time expires.
  • 1991:  Again the Vols (#8) fall to a lower ranked Alabama (#14) team, 24-19 in Birmingham.
  • 1992:  The Tide hold off sophomore Heath Shuler and the Vols 17-10 in Knoxville.  Johnny Majors will resign four weeks later with a 4-12 carer record against the Tide.  Alabama will win the National Championship.
  • 1993:  Phillip Fulmer's first crack at Alabama is arguably his most painful.  The Tide, ranked second and on a two year undefeated streak, fall behind 10-9 to the Vols but partially separate Heath Shuler's shoulder (he stayed in the game).  Charlie Garner rips off a long 4th quarter TD to put the Vols up 17-9 and put victory within reach.  But Tennessee fails to run out the clock, punts back to Alabama, and then plays prevent defense (pre-Chavis) while Jay Barker leads Alabama downfield for a touchdown in the final seconds, and then Heisman finalist David Palmer lines up under center and runs it in for the two point conversion.  It was a 17-17 tie that felt every bit like a loss, later forfeited to the Vols because, breaking news, Bama cheats.
  • 1994:  Freshman Peyton Manning drives the Vols to first and goal down 17-13 in the game's final minute, but cannot get the ball in the end zone, misfiring to Nilo Silvan on the final play and missing a w-i-d-e open James Stewart on the other side of the field.

When Tennessee beat Alabama in 1985, I was 4 years old.  So all throughout my childhood, I had no recollection of it ever happening, no memory of any moment, and had never seen it with my own eyes.  As far as I and everyone else my age knew, Tennessee never beat Alabama.  And even and especially when we were supposed to...that just meant Alabama was going to make it that much more painful.

Leading the charge for Bama during the end of this run was a quarterback named Jay Barker, who was Alabama's version of Andy Kelly:  forget talent, this kid just knows how to win.  Barker got the best of the Vols in 92, 93, and 94, putting him on the list with Danny Wuerffel (and to be joined by Tim Tebow, perhaps, in September) of quarterbacks that I can't stand but secretly have to respect because they beat the Vols every year of their collegiate career.

(Full-circle side note:  Barker is now married to Sara Evans, which means you have to tip your hat to this guy for a number of reasons.  Sara Evans is scheduled to perform at the Big Orange Blast kickoff event this year, the night before the Western Kentucky game.  If this season goes in the toilet, I'm blaming Jay Barker.  I'm good at it.)

In 1995, Barker had graduated and was replaced by the two headed monster of Brian Burgdorf and Freddie Kitchens.  Alabama fans are still shaking their heads.

Still, the Tide opened the '95 campaign 4-1 and ranked 12th coming to the Third Saturday, losing only to Arkansas by one point in a classic game you'll still regularly see on CSS.  Tennessee had lost only to the Gators and was 5-1, ranked 6th.  But at this point, records and rankings mattered none:  it had been ten years since Tennessee had beaten Alabama, and history suggested Alabama would find a way to make it eleven.  Leading up to the game, Alabama freshman Fernando Bryant dropped a "We own Tennessee" comment.

Turns out, Fernando cashed in on the work of his predecesors just in time, because on this night in Birmingham, the Vols came to collect.

3. 1995:  #6 Tennessee 41 - #12 Alabama 14 (Birmingham)

Sometimes to get over the hump in a losing streak against your rival, you have to intercept a pass in the end zone on the final drive, like the Vols did against Bama in 1982.  Or you need a missed field goal in overtime to beat Florida.  Or you have to survive David Greene trying to beat you on the last play of the game again.

On this night, the Vols decided to forego the dramatics of this rivalry, and just burn the house down.  Starting on play number one:

We mentioned this before, but people who said Peyton Manning never won a big game before the Super Bowl can't possibly understand how much what he did on this night meant to us.  Because it was Alabama, you wouldn't let yourself come close to believing it at the time...but in reality, this game was over.

On the ensuing drive, Leonard Little put a "Welcome to the Third Saturday in October" shot on Burgdorf that separated him from his helmet and the football.  The Vols recovered, Manning went to Marcus Nash, and bang bang, Tennessee was up 14-0. 

Little's assault on the Alabama quarterbacks would continue throughout the evening.  It wasn't just UT's offensive explosion that made the difference, it was John Chavis - in his first season as defensive coordinator - sending his troops after the inexperienced Bama QBs relentlessly, with a back seven that was equally capable of delivering punishment.

Driving with the ball again later in the first quarter, Manning made the other 21 guys on the field look the other way:

(Notice the Vol offensive lineman who signals for the touchdown, because even he doesn't know that Manning kept the ball.)

In the first nine minutes and forty-five seconds, Tennessee absolutely dominated Alabama in every aspect of the game.  The Vols scored more points in those first nine minutes than they had in the entire game against Alabama for the last five years.  Times had changed.

But again, if you watched it live, you couldn't relax.  Alabama always found a way.  There were still three and a half quarters left for them to do it again.

The Tide did score in the second quarter to make it 21-7, but Manning led the Vols on an absolutely crucial drive at the end of the first half, hitting Nash again for a touchdown with less than a minute to play to give Tennessee a 28-7 halftime lead and deflate Alabama's momentum.

When the Tennessee offense sputtered for just a moment at the start of the third quarter, the Tide capitalized.  And when Alabama scored to cut it to 28-14, and those same lyrics to "Yea Alabama" that we'd heard loud and clear for the last ten years began to ring out again, everybody wearing orange got nervous.  Here it comes, we said.  Down only two possessions still in the third quarter, here they come.  They've done it for ten years.  They'll find a way to do it again.  Right?

Ladies and gentlemen, Jay Graham:

This was the backbreaker.  You can hear in that clip how the Tide faithful were all bought into that idea at the start of the play...and then how they're gloriously replaced with cheering from the other side as the run unfolds (this call on this play is also reason number infinity why Ron Franklin should be calling the Saturday Night ESPN game).

With the Vols up 35-14, Alabama had to abandon the run...and now we had them.  The defense continued to deliver punishment and showed no mercy.  The offense added two Jeff Hall field goals, just to make sure.  And as the minutes counted down at Legion Field, the realization began to set in:  Alabama's dominance was over.  A new era had begun.  Under Phillip Fulmer and Peyton Manning, Tennessee completely turned around the Third Saturday in October.

This was ultimately the first of seven consecutive victories over Alabama, something no other school has ever accomplished.  Alabama was, is, and always will be Tennessee's biggest rival, and when Fulmer arrived the Vols were in the depths of despair.  It took him three years to do it...but on this night, he set Tennessee free.

This is what freedom sounds like:

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