Continuing our series of The 20 Most Heartbreaking Losses in the Last 20 Years
15. 2005: #5 Alabama 6 - #17 Tennessee 3 (Tuscaloosa)
After Alabama didn't lose to Tennessee from 1986-1994, Tennessee won nine of ten against the Tide from 1995-2004. The Third Saturday had been moved back to Tuscaloosa from Birmingham in 1999, but thanks to UT's streak the Tide had still never beaten the Vols in T-Town. Tennessee's 2005 season was already in trouble thanks to losses to Florida and Georgia, while Mike Shula and the Tide were undefeated, having vaulted up the polls after a 31-3 beatdown of the Gators.
This was a hideous display of football. Alabama barely outgained the Vols 257-253, and the Vols did themselves no favors with 10 penalties and 4 turnovers. The game was played between the 30s in the first half, and was scoreless until the final play of the third quarter, when Alabama hit a field goal to take a 3-0 lead. The Vols responded immediately with one of their own, and the 3-3 deadlock gave way to a finish that summed up all the frustrations of the 2005 season.
With the Tide backed up and forced to punt, Tennessee took over near midfield with under ten minutes to play. The Vols finally put together a consistent drive, and had first and goal at the Alabama 4 with less than six to go. Given the way this game had gone, a touchdown felt like sure victory.
And then, this happened:
(Sidenote: He ain't John Ward, but Eli Gold is very good at what he does.)
Tennessee went on to lose the following week in similar fashion to South Carolina, and finished the year 5-6. Alabama would run its record to 9-0 before losing to LSU in overtime, but would win the Cotton Bowl for their first January 1 bowl victory since 1996.
14. 1992: Arkansas 25 - #4 Tennessee 24 (Knoxville)
The history of Tennessee Football began to change on this day in Knoxville - the Vols were 5-0, with three of those wins coming with interim head coach Phillip Fulmer at the helm, two of them huge upsets over Georgia and Florida. Johnny Majors returned early from heart surgery and oversaw UT wins over Cincinnati and LSU. The Vols were squarely in the driver's seat in the first year of the SEC East, and hosted Arkansas in their first year in the league one week before the Third Saturday date with undefeated Alabama (who would go on to win the National Championship).
The video tells the story: the Vols fell behind early but rallied to take a 24-16 lead, and were punting back to Arkansas with less than three minutes to play. And Johnny Majors' fate at Tennessee turned on three special teams plays:
The Vols lost the following week to Alabama 17-10, then lost at South Carolina 23-22. Three final possession losses by nine combined points, the Vols lost the SEC East, and Majors lost his job.
13. 2002: #10 Florida 30 - #4 Tennessee 13 (Knoxville)
The worst five minutes of my life as a UT fan.
Here's what hurt so much about this one: everything was lined up for it to be our time. The Vols beat Spurrier's Gators in The Swamp on December 1, 2001, and a month later The Visor headed for Washington. The Gators hired Ron Zook, then immediately went out and got blasted by Miami, 41-16, in The Swamp in week two of the 2002 season. The Vols were a preseason Top 5 team, Alabama was on probation, Georgia hadn't won an SEC title in 20 years...and all of us had visions of going on our own run of dominance in this league. In a Knoxville downpour, we also had visions of taking Zook and the Gators behind the woodshed and enjoying every minute of it.
The rain removed the beatdown option, and both teams settled in for what looked like an epic defensive battle. The Vols missed a field goal, but there were no turnovers in the first 25 minutes of play. Florida had fourth and goal at the 1 yard line with five minutes to play in the half, and Earnest Graham got in on a third-effort run to put the Gators up 7-0.
What followed was an unparalleled display of futility, on both sides of the ball. If you're not a UT fan, it's completely comical. If you are a UT fan, it was tragedy of the worst kind. In five minutes, our dreams of becoming the new dominant team in the SEC turned into a nightmare that we never recovered from.
On the first play of the ensuing drive, Casey Clausen fumbled a snap and the Gators recovered. After a penalty, Florida had 3rd and 14 at the UT 28...and Rex Grossman threw a touchdown. 14-0, 3:32 to play in the half.
On the first play of the ensuing drive, Corey Larkins fumbled and the Gators recovered. Thankfully, Rashad Baker picked off Grossman at the goal line on the very next play. Tennessee couldn't come off the goal line as Clausen fumbled some more, but punted the Gators back to their own 38 yard line with 2:31 to play. From there, the Vol defensive continued a horrific display of missed tackles, allowing Florida to score in six plays. 21-0, :30 to play in the half.
So then, just for good measure, Troy Fleming fumbled as the Vols were running out the clock, and the Gators recovered, allowing them to kick a field goal as the half expired. The game was scoreless with five minutes left in the half...and by the time it actually got here, Florida had a 24-0 lead. I just remember staring off into some distance where this couldn't possibly be real, for all of these five minutes and most of halftime. The only thing that broke it was the Florida band, waiting on the sideline directly in front of the UT student section for all of these final five minutes, with several of its members acting in what we'd call an unsportsmanlike fashion, while protected by our own police department. I hate this day.
Florida allowed us to think we were still in it for all of the third quarter and half of the fourth, before converting a 3rd and 10 into a touchdown, and putting the game out of reach at 30-13. For one day, we made Ron Zook look good. Nine minutes worth of highlights are here - if you can watch this and not get angry, you're a better person than I.
12. 1996: #4 Florida 35 - #2 Tennessee 29 (Knoxville)
This was just as unbelievable as what happened in 2002, only without the memories of a National Championship or beating Florida the year before to talk you off the ledge.
Every major program en route to a championship runs into a game like this, where you think you're ready and you think it's finally your time to arrive...and then you discover very quickly that it's not. With Neyland Stadium freshly expanded, the '96 UT/UF game would break the all-time college football attendance mark. And after what had happened the year before (which we'll get to), the Vols knew they could play with Florida, at least to a degree. I'm not sure we've ever talked ourselves into a big win so much beforehand, and I know we've never been more wrong.
On the game's first drive, Florida had 4th down at the UT 35, and the 1996 version of The Ballcoach didn't hesitate to go for it. Danny Wuerffel responded with a touchdown pass. On the third offensive play of the game for UT, Peyton Manning threw an interception. Florida scored on the very next play.
It stayed 14-0 going to the second quarter, but then the worst two minutes of my life as a UT fan unfolded: Wuerffel threw another touchdown pass to make it 21-0 with 12:00 to play in the half, Manning threw another interception, and Wuerffel threw another touchdown. Then at 28-0, Jay Graham got hit and the ball flew what seemed like a hundred feet in the air...and came down within the reach of a Florida player, who picked it up and ran it back for a touchdown. Three Florida scores around two UT turnovers in less than two minutes of gametime, and with more than ten minutes still left in the second quarter...Florida led 35-0.
When that ball flew up in the air, my Dad and I left...and we weren't alone. What we misssed was Manning throwing his fourth interception of the first half on its final drive, keeping the game at 35-7 at the break. Manning threw 4 interceptions in the entire 1995 season, setting a record for INT percentage. In this game he threw 4 in 30 minutes.
The one at the end of the half actually turned out to be important...because in the second half, Manning quit throwing interceptions and started throwing completions (en route to a then school record 492 yards, later broken against Kentucky in 1997), and in the rain the Gators started stalling...and Tennessee almost came back. The Vols scored to cut it to 35-29 in the final minute, but didn't get the onside kick...can you imagine how insane this could've been if Manning only throws three interceptions instead of four?
Alas, it was not to be. In the first half of '95 and the second half of '96, the Vols outscored Florida 52-21. But in the second half of '95 and the first half of '96, the Gators outscored the Vols 76-14. Florida went on to win the National Championship in 1996.
11. 2009: #1 Alabama 12 - Tennessee 10 (Tuscaloosa)
You know what happened. Let's talk about why it's not higher on the list.
If we go back in time and pretend we still want good things to happen to Lane Kiffin, getting this win would've been huge for him in his first year here. Beating Alabama anytime is great...beating them when they're number one (in a year where they instead go on to win it all) is euphoria.
However, with Tennessee entering the game as a 3-3 football team and being such a huge underdog, whatever you want to call that "moral victory" quality about this game means it has to come down the list a little bit. Also in play is the fact that for a very long time, Alabama led this game 9-3. The Vols were never in front, and only threatened to be in front on the final play. We were never supposed to be this close, it didn't break our season or cost us anything...and as a result, I've got it just outside the top ten. Every loss that comes after this one on the list felt worse at the time and feels worse today, at least to me. You can disagree and make a very good argument in doing so...and if we're talking "most heartbreaking final minute", this one is easily in the Top 5. But for the entire game itself, considering the stakes, this is as high as I felt like it could go. Feel free to disagree with me in the comments, and leave your memories of any of these games.
Coming next week: individual posts for the Top 10.