As we celebrate (?) the chance to see our old friend John Chavis again on Saturday, here's a look back at our picks for the five best and five worst defensive performances during Chief's tenure at the University of Tennessee (1995-2008).
#5 - 1998 SEC Championship Game vs Mississippi State - 24-14 W
Wayne Madkin and #23 Mississippi State weren't the mightiest of offenses to face, but that's the only thing that keeps this performance from being the obvious choice for number one on the list. The stellar defensive performance was also the only thing that kept the Vols from being the third victim on Upset Saturday in December 1998: after undefeated UCLA and Kansas State went down, Mississippi State ran an interception and a punt back for a touchdown for their only points against the Vols. While Tee Martin gets remembered for throwing a great pass to Peerless Price in the final minutes to put the Vols back in front, the defense gave up only 149 yards of total offense - 84 passing and 65 rushing - gave up no points, and created three turnovers, including a fumble that sealed MSU's fate.
#4 - 1999 at Alabama - 21-7 W
The first Third Saturday in Tuscaloosa in decades, against an Alabama team that twice dropped 30+ on Florida en route to winning the SEC Championship, with Shaun Alexander in the midst of a Heisman campaign...and the Vols put a brick wall in front of all of that. This game killed Alexander's Heisman push, and was the Vols' fifth straight win in the series. The dominant defensive effort was even enough to cover up for a Tee Martin injury that forced him out of the game for a series in the second quarter.
#3 - 2004 at Georgia - 19-14 W
The week before, the Vols gave up 400 yards of offense to the eventual undefeated Auburn juggernaut, while Georgia dropped 430 yards and 45 points on defending National Champion LSU. The Vols went to Athens as a 12 point underdog against #3 Georgia...and Jesse Mahelona and the Tennessee defense pulled the upset. With the Vol offense going behind a true freshman quarterback, the Vol defense made senior David Greene look like one: 15 of 34, 163 yards. Mahelona sacked him twice and forced an intentional grounding, and when the Dawgs still mounted one final drive to win, the Vols again got pressure on Greene and forced a bad throw to seal the victory.
#2 - 1996 Citrus Bowl vs Ohio State - 20-14 W
You can make a very good argument that this is the most talented team the Vols have ever played against. The rain and the cleats helped, but a Vol defense that was abused in the first few games of Chief's tenure (keep reading) turned in one of the most dominant performances of his tenure in the final game of the 1995 season. Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George barely cracked the century mark with 101, but was stonewalled on 4th and goal at the 1 in the second quarter, and had one of three consecutive fumbles on Ohio State's final three drives that helped the Vols to a 20-14 win.
#1 - 1998 vs Florida - 20-17 (OT) W
Alright, here's the thing about this game: time has made us remember it with orange-colored glasses, and rightfully so, but if you actually sit down and watch it start to finish today? Our offense is horrible in this game. Atrocious. Aside from two big plays - the Shawn Bryson run and the Peerless Price catch in double coverage - we do nothing with the football all day. It was Tee Martin's second start against a Florida defense with future NFL stars on it, so there's reason for it...but the Tennessee offense is unwatchable in this game.
And we still won.
The defense - one week after getting torched by Donovan McNabb - forced five turnovers, sacked Florida quarterbacks five times, and held the Gators to -18 yards rushing, still the second best total in school history. They also held the Gators to a field goal on a crucial first and goal sequence in the first quarter. Al Wilson's play in this game is simply unbelievable, and Deon Grant's interception to get the game to overtime was an amazing individual play. The best Tennessee defense played its best game against the best opponent on the schedule.
#5 - 1998 Orange Bowl vs. Nebraska - 42-17 L
I hesitate to even include this game, both because this Nebraska team was such a monster, and because this game really taught us a lot as a program, and set the table for us to win the National Championship the next year. But the pain associated with this being Peyton Manning's last game, and the fact that this was a really good Tennessee team and a really good Tennessee defense (with seniors Leonard Little, Jonathan Brown, Bill Duff, Tyrone Hines, and Terry Fair)...and we just got destroyed. Ahman Green ran for an Orange Bowl record 201 yards, and Nebraska turned a 14-3 game at halftime into a beatdown to earn their share of the National Championship.
#4 - 2001 Cotton Bowl vs. Kansas State - 35-21 L
Once Casey Clausen was inserted as the starting quarterback, the Vols won six straight games to end the 2000 regular season. The future was bright, and Kansas State was simply going to be the transition between a rebuilding year and a championship year. On a brutally cold day in Dallas, the Wildcats unleashed a performance similar to what Nebraska did to the Vols at the end of the '97 and '99 seasons. The fact that this was Kansas State and not Nebraska made it all the more depressing when Josh Scobey set a Cotton Bowl record with 147 rushing yards, and Jonathan Beasley ran for 98 while throwing for 210. The Wildcats dropped 21 points on the Vols in the first quarter en route to the 35-21 win.
#3 - 2007 at Florida - 59-20 L
Though this is the worst loss of the Fulmer era, it doesn't earn the top spot simply because the Vol defense was so young, and we were playing against Tim Tebow. But the fact that you can argue that the Vols quit in the fourth quarter doesn't help its cause. Still: 554 yards of total offense for Florida, 59 points, and the devastation was equal: 299 passing, 255 rushing. And remember it could've been even worse if not for Eric Berry's pick six.
#2 - 1995 at Florida - 62-37 L
Game number three of the Chavis Administration, and while Jay Graham certainly gets some of the blame for this one, he wasn't out there trying to defend against Danny Wuerffel and the Fun & Gun. Tennessee led 30-14 late in the second quarter when Wuerffel was blasted, fumbled, and Ray Austin ran it back for a touchdown. It's all a nightmare after that, when the rain and the points came in full force. This was the most shocking performance by a good Tennessee defense ever - again, these guys shut down Ohio State's NFL players at the end of the same year.
#1 - 2007 at Alabama - 41-17 L
By mid-October, you couldn't really call this defense young anymore. Alabama was an eventual 6-6 team in Nick Saban's first year, which, you might've heard, lost to Louisiana-Monroe a month later. But this wasn't the Cal or Florida offense that torched Chavis' defense...this was John Parker Wilson (32 of 46, 363 yards, 3 TDs) and D.J. Hall (13 catches, 185 yards, 2 TDs) writing their names into the Alabama record book. Even Bama fans will tell you that JPW and D.J. Hall don't belong there. Alabama went 7-of-18 on third down, got 510 yards of total offense, and turned the Tide in this rivalry.