The highest scoring offense in Tennessee Football history wasn't led by Peyton Manning, but Heath Shuler: the 1993 Vols averaged 42.8 points per game, and Shuler would become just another Vol who finished second in the Heisman Trophy vote. You want balance? The '93 offense averaged 238 yards rushing and 242 yards passing per game. This was David Cutcliffe's first year as offensive coordinator, and on the Decade of Dominance DVD, Fulmer says of this group, "We had an offense that wasn't out there to move the ball - we were out there to score on every play."
Behind Shuler, the backfield featured a pair of future 1,000 yard NFL rushers in Charlie Garner and James Stewart. Seniors Cory Fleming and Craig Faulkner led the receiving corps, and the offensive line of Jason Layman, Kevin Mays, Bubba Miller, Jeff Smith, and Leslie Ratliffe was among the best of the Vols' most successful decade. In Phillip Fulmer's first full season as head coach, the Vols announced their presence with a 38-6 beatdown of Georgia on September 11. Tennessee lost a 41-34 shootout in The Swamp the following week, but easily won three straight after that to move to 5-1, 10th in the AP poll.
And then it was time for Alabama.
As good as the Vols were on offense, Alabama was every bit their equal on defense. One year after winning the National Championship behind the best SEC defense of our lifetimes, Alabama entered the Third Saturday in October at 5-0...and had given up 35 total points. At this point, Alabama had won 28 consecutive games...and 7 in a row against Tennessee.
If you're looking for the definitive Third Saturday in October experience, I nominate this game. Two incredibly good teams, record setting offense vs. championship defense, outstanding individual players, and true to this rivalry, a long winning streak on the line. This is as good as this rivalry gets.
6. 1993: #2 Alabama 17 - #10 Tennessee 17 (Birmingham)
After the Vols ran off four straight victories against the Tide from 1982-1985, Alabama resumed command of the series. The losses got even more painful once the Vols entered the ranks of college football's elite in 1989. Tennessee lost only nine games from 1989-1992...but the Tide got us every year. The narrative of modern Tennessee Football pre-1998 centered around being a very good team while our rivals were great: from 1989-1993 the Vols were very good, but Alabama was better. And after a rebuilding year in 1994, the Vols were again very good from 1995-1997...but Florida was better.
The three previous Third Saturdays were all one possession Alabama victories, including a 17-10 game in Knoxville in 1992. Alabama went on to win the National Championship that year, but the Vols were both young and in transition from Johnny Majors to Phillip Fulmer. Tennessee knew they could play with Alabama, and now a year later with the Vols more experienced and Alabama having lost three defenders to the first round of the 1993 Draft, we felt confident this would be our year. Losing to Alabama was Johnny Majors' problem, not Phillip Fulmer's.
When a great offense meets a great defense, the defense usually wins. But while the scoring in this game was low, both offenses were up to the challenge: Tennessee would finish with 406 yards of total offense, while Alabama got 370. Again true to Third Saturday form, this game was about turnovers and big plays.
That started on the third play of the game when Shuler was intercepted, and the "Here we go again" vibes immediately kicked in. The Vol defense held, but when the Vol offense punted back Alabama drove to first and goal at the UT 8. But Tennessee's defense again held, and Bama took three to draw first blood. The Vols responded by driving to the Alabama 25; the Tide blitzed, and Shuler made an incredibly impressive throw off his back foot, just before getting drilled by a Bama defender. The pass was on the money to Craig Faulkner, and the Vols led 7-3.
Again, turnovers and big plays: in the final minutes of the first half, the Vols fumbled in Tide territory and Bama recovered. Facing 3rd and 11, Alabama quarterback Jay Barker completed a 40 yard pass to put the Tide in field goal range. Alabama again took three, but the Vols should've taken a 7-6 lead into the locker room. Instead, Shuler was intercepted by Antonio Langham, giving Bama another three points in the final minute of the half.
A 9-7 game at halftime is already a defensive struggle, but the third play of the second half ensured it would stay that way: Shuler took a hit and partially separated his shoulder. He stayed in the game, and on the day was 15 of 20 for 180 yards...but he would complete zero passes in the second half.
The Vols could've struggled to score the rest of the day, but Jay Barker - a man of painfully few mistakes - made one early in the third quarter. Throwing from inside his own 15 yard line, Barker looked for David Palmer, but the Vols had him blanketed and DeRon Jenkins scored an interception. With Shuler hurt the Vols couldn't move closer, but John Becksvoort nailed a 34 yard field goal to put the Vols back in front 10-9.
And then we waited.
It's never a good feeling when your dominant emotion is "please just let the clock run out." In this case, the Vols had a quarter and a half to burn and seven years of bad luck against them. Both teams had their chances to change things: Alabama missed two field goals, and later in the third quarter Tennessee fumbled at the one yard line. So we stayed on hold, 10-9. Everything could change on any given play.
The game moved to the 4th quarter with Tennessee backed up at their own 27, facing 2nd and 6. Four fingers on every hand at Legion Field and in homes across the southeast went up. I was 12 years old and watching at home, downstairs with my Dad like always. But I imagine what I was feeling was the same thing everyone wearing orange was feeling: with everything that had happened in this rivalry in the last seven years, we still felt like it was only a matter of time. A one point lead wasn't really a lead at all, and in the fourth quarter, it would be Alabama, not Tennessee, that made every play to win.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, Charlie Garner changed everything:
(Note: Garner's run is actually the last highlight on this clip from the old Best of the Big Orange VHS tape, which also includes some epic Tennessee stuff like Dale Carter's second half kickoff return against Florida, Dale Jones' combat roll celebration, and one of my favorite John Ward calls of all time: on Jeff Powell's TD run against Miami in the 1986 Sugar Bowl upset, I love Ward's slight "I can't believe this is happening" chuckle when Powell turns it on past two defenders at the 40. But the run we're looking for starts at 2:10.)
In many ways, this game hurts so much for us because this run allowed us to believe.
Garner's 73 yard touchdown on the first play of the fourth quarter put the Vols up 17-9. We were still in "run the clock out" mode (especially with an injured QB, which fans didn't really know at the time)...but now we had some breathing room. Overtime didn't exist in college football until 1996, so on this day and at this point, we knew the worst Alabama could do on one play was give themselves a chance to tie. Suddenly we were running the clock out with hope, not fear.
And the clock, she ran. They'd punt. We'd punt. They'd punt. We'd punt. The Vols couldn't add to the lead, but Alabama couldn't subtract from it either. With time becoming an issue, Alabama had to go away from their running game, which got only 58 yards on the day. The Tide offense had made only one big play.
And even that play didn't involve David Palmer, the one guy we feared more than any other. Before he was running for president on 24, "The Deuce" would finish 1993 just behind Shuler in the Heisman Trophy voting...but on this day the Alabama WR had just 3 catches for 54 yards as the game moved into the final minutes. Palmer was Alabama's only big play threat, and the Vols had neutralized him.
The Vol defense held again, and the clock ran to the point where the Vol offense needed one first down to end it. Alabama burned their timeouts. The Vols faced third down with an ineffective quarterback against a stacked Alabama defense. And the defense held.
Tennessee punted back to Alabama, who took the ball at their own 17 with 1:44 to play, no timeouts.
It's important to note at this point that John Chavis didn't become Tennessee's defense coordinator until 1995. Which means if you're old enough to remember Chavis but too young to remember this game, you know what you're about to read.
It may not have been called the mustang back then. Maybe it was just the prevent. But the Vols decided to stop putting pressure on Jay Barker, and sit back and avoid the big play. Barker wasn't an NFL talent...but the guy just always found a way to win (the guy was 35-2-1 as a starter...who's going to break that record?). More than Andy Kelly, more than Tim Tebow...Barker's dominant quality was winning. And sitting back in the prevent, we made it all too easy.
How easy? The guy completed five passes in a row to open this drive. After Barker dumped to his fullback for 12 on the first play of the drive, Alabama finally unleashed David Palmer. Barker went to Deuce on three straight plays, and found completions good for 15, 22 (a sensational catch that's on the highlight package below), and 7 yards. In a heartbeat, Bama was inside the 30. After a run was stopped for a loss, Barker completed another pass, this one to Kevin Lee for 9 yards. To the sheer horror of everyone wearing orange, Alabama had first down at the UT 18.
Of course, it's much harder to play prevent defense at the 18, so the Vols tightened up, and Barker fired three consecutive incomplete passes, and our roller coaster of emotion continued.
So here again, we found ourselves one play away. As had been the case in 1990, would be the case in 1994, and was the case on a handful of second half plays in this game itself, Tennessee could beat Alabama by making one play: don't let the Tide convert 4th and 10.
But Jay Barker doesn't play that game. He completed a pass to Kevin Lee at the one yard line. First and goal, :23 to play.
We knew they'd score. All hope now fell back on stopping the two point conversion. Barker snuck it in on the next play for the touchdown - Alabama's first of the day - and the score was 17-15. Again, no overtime in '93, so this was it.
What's so frustrating about the two point conversion is that everyone knew what was going to happen: Alabama would put David Palmer at quarterback, and he'd try to get outside and run it in. Sure enough, Bama breaks the huddle without Jay Barker, Palmer lines up under center, and the Tide put two tight ends on the line and two backs behind him. You think Gene Stallings is putting this game in anyone else's hands? It's gonna be The Deuce.
And it was, of course. And sure, the play was blocked well...but 17 years later I still can't shake the feeling that this was way too easy:
(Again, I can't find just the individual play on YouTube, so you can either watch three minutes of David Palmer highlights, or skip to the 3:25 mark)
I'd be interested to know how Bama fans feel about this game today. At the time, most of the ones I knew treated it like a win because of the heroics of the final drive, and continued to do so even years after it happened. This always struck me as odd, because:
- The game, of course, was a tie, and broke Alabama's 28 game winning streak
- A couple years later, it received an * (the universal symbol for Alabama Football and Calipari Basketball) and was changed to a win for UT in the record books thanks to Antonio Langham's agent
It certainly doesn't feel like a win for us, even now. It was exactly what it was: a tie between two incredibly good football teams, and another epic chapter in the Third Saturday rivalry. It was also the beginning of the end for Tennessee/Alabama as the marquee SEC game - the Vols and Tide played another Top 10 showdown in 1996, but then Gene Stallings retired and Alabama went into hiding for a while (aside from a 1999 SEC Championship, but the Vols beat Bama 21-7 in Tuscaloosa that year, and the game wasn't really that close). Meanwhile Florida took the league by storm, and would become the first of three SEC teams to win a National Championship before Alabama got another one. And now that Bama's back, it's our turn to ride the coaching carousel.
I long for the day when Tennessee and Alabama return together to their rightful place as the two best teams in the SEC, and finally get the chance to meet in Atlanta (if all this crazy expansion talk doesn't rob us of the opportunity somehow). But for the rivalry as a whole, I think if you're going to pick one game to show what it's all about, it's awfully hard to top this.