This post is sponsored by EA Sports NCAA Football 11
This fall will be Tennessee's 120th year of football, trailing only Kentucky (1881), Ole Miss (1890), and Vanderbilt (1890) as the oldest football program in the SEC. In those twelve decades the Vols have won sixteen SEC Championships (since play began in 1933), twenty-five bowl games (from 1931), had thirty-eight first-team All-Americans, and claimed six National Championships, including two consensus titles in 1951 and 1998.
Now, for most of us, my assumption is that when the question of favorite Tennessee team is raised, our answer is immediately 1998. And that's obviously for good reason - it wasn't just the National Championship, it was doing it without Peyton Manning, beating Florida for the first time in six years behind Al Wilson, Clint Stoerner's stumble and fumble, and many other great memories of that season.
So if you want to talk about the '98 Vols as your favorite team, by all means go ahead. But we're also just going to acknowledge that they have reserved their own special place in Tennessee Football history, that their championship separates them from the rest...and then open up the floor for some of our other favorite teams as well.
Every season tells a story, and every team leaves its mark on Tennessee, and on us. What's your favorite Tennessee Football team?
2007: Phillip Fulmer's Last Stand
Sometimes the best stories aren't the ones with the happiest endings. While I too will freely admit that the 1998 team is really my favorite, I think the 2007 team is the most interesting story.
Consider the roller coaster ride that was:
- In the season opener at #12 Cal, the defense gave up 471 yards and 45 points, assisted by a defensive touchdown and a DeSean Jackson punt return TD for the Golden Bears. The #15 Vols lost 45-31, the first season opening loss since 1994.
- Two weeks later in Gainesville, Tennessee suffered the worst loss of the Phillip Fulmer Era. This time it was 554 yards and 59 points, assisted once again by a defensive touchdown and a Brandon James punt return TD. The defensive score came after Eric Berry's introduction to the college football world on a 93 yard pick six off Tim Tebow, which cut Florida's lead to 28-20 late in the third. But a fumbled exchange between Ainge and Arian Foster led to the first of 31 consecutive points the Gators scored in the final twenty minutes. More than 1,000 yards and 100 points were surrendered in two September losses.
- With a late September off week, the cries for Fulmer's job were louder than ever before. The day before the Georgia game on October 6, John Pennington wrote a story in the Knoxville News-Sentinel where nine former Vols anonymously criticized the program for a number of things they felt weren't being done as well as before, from fundamentals, practice, and weight room habits. Florida had lost to Auburn the week before, putting a Tennessee team with no defense and wins over only Southern Miss and Arkansas State back in the SEC East title chase. The 2007 Georgia contest remains the greatest crossroads game I've ever seen: win, and you could control your own destiny in the SEC by Sunday morning. Lose, and Fulmer might get fired.
- We won, of course. Against Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno, the Vol defense gave up only 243 yards and 14 points. Tennessee jumped Georgia 28-0 in the first half, and won 35-14. Later that night, LSU went 5 for 5 on fourth down against Florida, and beat the Gators to put Tennessee in first place in the SEC East. Georgia would finish the season ranked second in the nation.
- The good vibes lasted two weeks. After beating Mississippi State, the September defense returned in Tuscaloosa: Alabama rolled to 510 yards and 41 points, this time needing less help from special teams and defense. DJ Hall - a name one wouldn't associate with school records at the University of Alabama - had 13 catches for 185 yards, and Bama won 41-17.
- The entire season in a day: on October 27, Georgia stunned Florida in the 3:30 kick, meaning the winner of the Tennessee-South Carolina game that night would be in first place in the SEC East. Tennessee led 21-0 at halftime, then allowed Carolina to get all of that back and more, as the Gamecocks took a 24-21 lead with 1:24 to play. Tennessee survived an Arian Foster fumble and a false start penalty that turned a 43 yard FG attempt into 48 yards in those final 84 seconds, then watched Daniel Lincoln split the uprights to send it to overtime, where he made another one, Carolina missed one, and the Vols were in first place.
- Tennessee had to run the table against Darren McFadden and Arkansas, Vanderbilt, and the Kentucky team that had beaten #1 LSU to win the East. More than 100 former Tennessee players published a letter in the KNS offering their support for Fulmer. The stakes remained at an insane height: win and it's Atlanta, lose and it's your job.
- A defense that couldn't stop anyone allowed Arkansas one first down in the first half. By the time they got their second with 11:00 left in the third quarter, Tennessee was up 27-3, and Darren McFadden was out of the Heisman Trophy race. The Vols won 34-13.
- Largest fourth quarter comeback in Neyland Stadium history? Vanderbilt, 2007. The Dores led 24-9 at the start of the final period, before the Vols came alive with two touchdowns and a field goal (needed after a missed two point conversion) to take a 25-24 lead with 2:46 to play. When Vandy returned the ensuing kickoff 55 yards, it only set Vanderbilt up to do what Vanderbilt does best: a 49 yard field goal hit the upright and was no good, and the Vols held on to win.
- In Lexington, Tennessee led 31-14 with 90 seconds to play in the third quarter. Kentucky cut it to 31-28, then drove 90 yards in 18 plays to the one yard line...but couldn't get in. We went to overtime, where the Vols had to block a field goal in the second OT to stay alive, then stop a two point conversion in the fourth to finally win it, 52-50. If this game goes the other way on any one of a dozen plays, Kentucky wins and the Vols are an 8-4 failure. Instead, Tennessee wins the SEC Eastern Division.
- After three blowouts losses, we finally met heartbreak: LSU was down 14-13 in the fourth quarter before intercepting Erik Ainge twice, surviving 21-14 to win the SEC Championship Game. The Tigers would go on to win the National Championship. Tennessee went to the Outback Bowl and got Fulmer's final bowl victory, 21-17 over Wisconsin.
This season had everything. The week-to-week emotional twists and turns were unlike anything I've ever experienced as a fan, with equal parts agony and ecstasy. Eric Berry wrote the first chapter of his legacy. Erik Ainge wrote the last chapter of his, turning his most frustrating failure in Atlanta into his best statistical game ever in the Outback Bowl win.
And this team had character, even if only because they were forced to build it. To get knocked around as bad as they did in September, and then to respond as well as they did and just keep finding ways to win every game they had to to get to Atlanta...you wanted to kill this team at times, and yet somehow you wanted them to succeed more than most others too. You wanted to see Ainge finish his career with something more memorable than how bad he was in 2005. You wanted them to grow...and we saw it happen. Anyone who says this team was lucky needs to watch the LSU tape, and anyone who says we backed into that game needs to check the Georgia film. It may not have been at all true in September, but this became a good football team - and it's the journey along the way that made them special.
Hanging in the balance was Phillip Fulmer, who stared down his fate from late September onward. His team's performance against Georgia was his last great coaching job, backs to the wall one last time together. And it was Georgia who put life back into our season: I remember driving in the day of the game for South Carolina, not really feeling all that excited after losing to Alabama. And then I remember my phone blowing up to tell me that Georgia was dancing in Florida's end zone, and by nightfall we were all eager for Carolina and another shot at the East.
November usually doesn't matter around here, but not so this year. Arkansas, Vanderbilt, and Kentucky were all of vital importance, you had no idea what was going to happen every week - from completely shutting down the Hogs to almost losing to the Dores - and the win over Kentucky is still the last Tennessee win of real significance (the Georgia win last year now feels swept up in the whole Kiffin drama).
I remember standing there freezing in the upper deck in Lexington, waiting for that field goal to be kicked in the second overtime, and wondering if Fulmer would survive while trying to figure out how we had possibly given it all away. And then in the next second, I was trying to figure out how we could beat LSU to win the SEC Championship.
If you love a good story, this was your year. Up until this year's basketball team, I'd never really experienced one any better. You never know what you're going to get with a team...but they don't have to go undefeated to give you an incredible experience.