What's the best reason I can give that Tennessee will have a chance to win on Saturday? Recent history.
For two teams that have never truly been rivals, Tennessee and LSU sure know how to put on a show when they do see each other. LSU was Tennessee's first rotating opponent when divisional play began in 1992; the Vols scored a pair of fairly easy victories over the Tigers in '92 and '93. Then we had to wait seven years for the series to rotate back to us...but in the last eleven years, between a quicker rotation with only one annual cross-division rival and a pair of meetings in Atlanta, Tennessee and LSU have never, ever failed to disappoint.
2000: LSU 38 - #11 Tennessee 31 (OT) (Baton Rouge)
An alarming number of young head coaches got the magical "win you could believe in" against Tennessee. Nick Saban was coming off a loss to UAB when the Vols came calling. LSU ambushed the Vols in the second quarter with a pair of Josh Reed touchdowns bookending a 74 yard touchdown run by LaBrandon Toefield. The half was capped off with a blocked UT field goal attempt, leaving the Tigers ahead 24-6 at the break. The Vols closed to 24-15 going to the fourth quarter, but Rohan Davey hit Reed again, this time from 53 yards, to make it 31-15 Tigers with just under fourteen minutes to play.
A.J. Suggs would lead the Vols back. Suggs would tie a Peyton Manning record for completions in one game by going 37 of 59; his favorite target was David Martin over the middle (12 for 73), with the short passing game leaving Suggs with just 319 yards to show for all his attempts. Still, he threw two touchdown passes and two successful two point conversions in the final nine minutes to bring the Vols all square and send the game into overtime. But after LSU scored on their first play in OT, the Vols were stopped on fourth down to preserve the victory for the Tigers.
2001: #7 Tennessee 26 - #14 LSU 18 (Knoxville)
The one everybody forgets about because of what happened in the next one. It was a unique environment, the first game after September 11 with an especially passionate crowd on hand. Donte Stallworth had broken his hand in the season opener and was out. Newcomer Kelley Washington had already been vocal about not getting the ball enough in the Vols' ugly 13-3 win at Arkansas.
He got the ball plenty on this night: a school record 256 yards on 11 catches (rest of team: 7 catches, 53 yards). Nine of KDub's eleven catches went for first downs. What was truly impressive about this game is that every single person in the stadium knew the ball was going to #15, and there was nothing the Tigers could do to stop it. This was especially true on UT's final drive, when Clausen hit Washington on 3rd and 9 at the UT 25 for a 30 yard gain, allowing the Vols to run the clock down to thirty seconds before punting the Tigers deep and securing the victory. This is when Washington was simply the present.
2001: #21 LSU 31 - #2 Tennessee 20 (SEC Championship)
No. The only way to make this week more depressing is to talk about this game. It's the most heartbreaking loss in the history of the program, and you can read more about it here.
2005: #10 Tennessee 30 - #4 LSU 27 (OT) (Baton Rouge)
The Rally at Death Valley probably would've made up for a greater percentage of what happened in the 2001 SEC Championship Game, but then the Vols went in the toilet for the remainder of the '05 campaign, and this game lost some of its thunder in our collective memories.
Still, it's a tremendous roller coaster ride for more than sixty minutes. You had all the energy from the Monday night post-Katrina crowd. That energy and the LSU defense devoured Erik Ainge in the first half, culminating in the infamous over-the-shoulder pick six, with Ainge's face meeting the goal post for good measure. LSU led 21-0 and Tennessee looked completely destroyed.
And then Rick Clausen rode into town. Clausen calmly stared down the same blitzes that crushed Ainge and went 21 of 32 for 196 yards - like his brother, ice cold, no mistakes. While the Vols were mounting their comeback with Clausen, JaMarcus Russell made what we at the time believed was a young mistake to help them on their way, making a horrible decision on an interception by Jonathan Hefney with eight minutes to play that truly put the Vols back in it.
It was also the first big test for Les Miles. We've mentioned this here before, but Clausen did throw an interception with 18 seconds left trying to get the Vols into field goal range. There's footage of Miles immediately screaming for a timeout - in a dead ball situation - before nearly being tackled by one of his assistants. A sign of great moments in clock management to come.
In overtime, after the Vol D held LSU to a field goal (and the Tigers to just 256 yards on the night), Gerald Riggs touched the ball on UT's first four plays to move it to the one yard line. And after a failed QB sneak, Riggs finished the job and capped the comeback: down 21-0 at halftime and 24-7 at the start of the fourth quarter, the Vols got the win in overtime. We ranked this victory #14 on our list of The 50 Best Games of the Fulmer Era.
2006: #13 LSU 28 - #8 Tennessee 24 (Knoxville)
There was some conversation earlier this week about how long the Vols have actually been rebuilding; anyone who wants to argue that 2006 was a rebuilding year is simply wrong. The Vols were 7-1 with a one point loss to eventual National Champion Florida. But Erik Ainge sprained his ankle the previous week in Columbia, the result of a ridiculous QB draw playcall. Similar to the 2004 season, when Ainge was lost for the year on a ridiculous hail mary attempt at the end of the first half against Notre Dame, UT's chances at a championship would be on the line without their starting quarterback.
Back then we only knew Jonathan Crompton as the highly touted recruit from North Carolina who'd grown up a UT fan his whole life. After Ainge played one series, in which it was clear the LSU defense would take target practice on him with zero mobility, Crompton got the call.
After a scoreless first quarter, David Cutcliffe decided the best thing to do with Crompton was let 'er fly and hope UT's talented receivers could make something happen. And Robert Meachem led the way, pulling in a 37 yard touchdown pass in the second quarter. When Demetrice Morley pick sixed JaMarcus Russell in the third quarter, the Vols led 17-7 and Neyland Stadium was rocking.
But LSU kept coming. The problem with pick sixes and long bombs for touchdowns is that your defense goes right back onto the field; on this night LSU won time of possession by a staggering margin of 41:06 to 18:54, running 81 offensive plays to UT's 50. Following Morley's pick six, LSU responded with touchdown drives of 11 plays and 9 plays to retake the lead 21-17.
This was really the last truly huge football game played in Neyland Stadium, and it lived up to the hype. With Crompton and the Vol offense unable to put together anything sustained and James Wilhoit missing a 46 yard field goal, the Tennessee defense had to make a play. And they made two of them on consecutive fourth quarter drives: Russell was picked by Antwan Stewart at the UT 15 to kill one drive, then Jonathan Wade forced a fumble near midfield to kill another. On the first play after the fumble, Crompton went deep again, and Meachem made the play between two defenders for a 54 yard touchdown. The Vols led 24-21 with 7:29 to play.
The Vol defense, totally exhausted and having already produced three turnovers, needed one more stop. And they would've had it had instant replay existed as it does today - JaMarcus Russell was ruled down on what replays showed to be a clear fumble that was clearly recovered by Tennessee. But alas, the drive continued. 15 plays, 80 yards, including a 4th and 8 conversion. It ended on third and goal at the UT 4 with nine seconds left, as Russell found Early Doucet in the end zone for the dagger. We look back on this now and wonder how we got beat by Russell...but man, what an incredible football game.
2007: #5 LSU 21 - #14 Tennessee 14 (SEC Championship)
Another great hypothetical in UT football lore: if Erik Ainge doesn't throw two interceptions in the fourth quarter of this game, does Phillip Fulmer keep his job a year later?
I've never liked the word "backdoored" to describe the way the Vols got here - to me, you backdoor a championship when a team in front of you loses late. Tennessee went in through Georgia's front door, thank you very much, and burned the whole house to the ground in October. So regardless of UGA's talent that led to an eventual number two finish, they didn't get cheated by the '07 Vols. They got blown out by them.
Anyway, five overtimes in Lexington later, Tennessee was the SEC East Champion at 9-3. Not pretty, but hey, we were in Atlanta, and in Atlanta anything can happen...unless you're Tennessee. And then, only bad things will happen. Especially if you're wearing orange pants.
After Les Miles had his "Have a great day" press conference to announce he was not taking the Michigan job, the Vols stunned the Tigers with a touchdown on their opening drive. Tennessee then used the bend but don't break blueprint: LSU got 456 yards on the day, but a pair of turnovers and a missed field goal seemed to always keep them at bay, especially with Ryan Perrilloux playing for the injured Matt Flynn.
Even when the Tigers did take the lead 13-7 in the third quarter, the Vols came back with an Ainge pass to Josh Briscoe to make it 14-13 Vols into the fourth. But just nine minutes from glory, Ainge threw a pick six to Jonathan Zenon, then fired another inside the LSU 10 on the Vols' final drive. The Tigers went on to win the National Championship.
2010: #12 LSU 16 - Tennessee 14 (Baton Rouge)
Yeah, we're not going to revisit this one in depth either. Both sides remember it well.
The blueprint to follow from last year's game? Again, bend but don't break (434 yards, 10 points until the play after the last play of the game), force bad decisions from LSU quarterbacks (4 turnovers), protect the football (0 turnovers for the Vols). If you do all that and can keep Jefferson from scoring an 83 yard touchdown on the first play, and not run 13 players on the field when LSU tries to substitute in the final seconds, you can win.
What's different this time around? As mentioned on our podcast Sunday night, LSU is running a much simpler offense this time around - the Tigers ran it 49 times and passed just 14 times against Florida last week. That same Florida defense the Vols couldn't crack? Yeah, LSU got 238 yards on the ground.
What else is different? Tauren Poole ran for 109 yards against these guys last year. This year?
Recent history suggests trouble. But a longer look suggests a classic could once again appear as if from nowhere on Saturday.
Just remember: Les Miles is involved. Something dramatic is bound to happen.