(which is a fancy way of saying everything since the SEC last expanded twenty years ago in 1992)
The over/under on Saturday's game is 53, but all signs point to something north of that figure. The Bearcats and Vols were 57th and 58th nationally in scoring offense last season, both right at 27 points per game. But both return all of their firepower on offense and have questions on defense. In Tyler Bray's six starts, the Vols are averaging 36.5 points per game. And Cincinnati just dropped 72 on Austin Peay in their opener.
So things could get a little wild and crazy on Saturday. I'd love nothing more than for our defense to come out and make a huge statement against the Bearcats, limiting their offense while ours explodes for another easy victory. That would be ideal.
But in anticipation of something less than ideal, here's a look at our picks for the ten best Vol shootouts of the last twenty years, with some numbers to provide context for what we might see on Saturday. Fun fact: nine of these ten games took place outside Knoxville, so if we see a ton of fireworks on Saturday, it'll be unique...
10. 1995: #10 Tennessee 49 - #18 Arkansas 31 (Fayetteville)
If you just go straight by the numbers, this is the second highest combined point total in a game the Vols won since 1992. This was Peyton Manning's statistical coming out party: 35 of 46 (.761) for 384 yards. He got his national coming out party the following week as the Vols beat Alabama 41-14.
9. 2006: #11 Tennessee 31 - Air Force 30 (Knoxville)
Two completely different philosophies produced an almost identical result: on this night the Vols and Falcons were separated by four yards and one point. It's a truly remarkable football game that saw one of Erik Ainge's best performances (24 of 29 for 333 yards with 3 TD/1 INT) against an Air Force option attack that gained 281 yards on the ground. The Vols outgained Air Force 412-408; Tennessee was 9-of-11 on third down, while Air Force was 9-of-13. In the end a failed two-point conversion cost the Falcons a chance at a huge upset.
8. 1998: #10 Tennessee 34 - #17 Syracuse 33 (Carrier Dome)
A memorable affair in any year, this game holds an extra special place in our hearts because of the season it took place in. But it should also be remembered for the way Donovan McNabb and Syracuse gutted what would become the legendary 1998 Tennessee defense. McNabb went 22 of 28 for 300 yards, and the Orange(men) gained 445 yards of offense on the day. Tennessee countered with Jamal Lewis (141 on just 20 carries) and Tee Martin in his very first start, who immediately showed his knack for making sure his big plays, though few, always came at the right moment. There were 30 points scored in the fourth quarter of this game, none bigger than Jeff Hall's final three. We ranked this game 19th on the list of the 50 Best Games of the Fulmer Era.
7. 1996: #9 Tennessee 48 - #11 Northwestern 28 (Citrus Bowl)
In what was believed to be Peyton Manning's final game in a Vol uniform, he went out in style. There are only three 400+ yard passing games in UT football history, and Manning has them all. On this day he unleashed 408 yards and 4 TDs on the Big Ten co-champs, who fell behind 21-0 before rallying to tie the game with two minutes left before halftime. That's when Manning hit Joey Kent for 67 yards, ensuring the rout wasn't over, but merely paused.
6. 1992: #20 Tennessee 34 - #14 Georgia 31 (Athens)
One of the all-time great box scores. The Dawgs - with Eric Zeier, Garrison Hearst, and Andre Hastings - gained 624 yards of offense, but turned the ball over six times. The coming out party for Heath Shuler and interim head coach Phillip Fulmer, Tennessee converted a 4th and 13 on their final drive to retake the lead, when they scooped up a Georgia fumble with seventeen seconds to play to seal the deal. How different are all of our lives if Georgia just turns it over five times instead of six, Fulmer doesn't get this win, doesn't use it as a springboard for the win over Florida the next week, and doesn't take over for Johnny Majors two months later?
5. 2001: #4 Tennessee 34 - #2 Florida 32 (Gainesville)
The single greatest football game I've ever seen. Everything after this one may have a greater shootout quality, and there are a small handful of more memorable victories, but you will not find a better football game UT participated in. With everything on the line, Rex Grossman: 33 of 51 for 362 yards, 3 TDs, and the cusp of Heisman glory. That was taken away from him by Travis Stephens, whose 226 yards may not be the best total in school history, but they are without question the most memorable. Total punts: three. This game turns ten years old this December. Read more here on our 50 Best Games of the Fulmer Era countdown.
4. 1997: #5 Tennessee 59 - Kentucky 31 (Lexington)
90 combined points is the regulation record for a game the Vols won, and this duel between the top picks of the 1998 and 1999 NFL Drafts set several others. Tim Couch was good - 476 yards, 3 TDs, but also 3 INTs. But Peyton Manning was Peyton Manning: a school record 523 yards and 5 TDs, the best passing performance in Tennessee Football history. The following day, Manning lost ground in a poll of Heisman voters.
3. 2006: #13 Tennessee 51 - #10 Georgia 33 (Athens)
This one has fewer yards (383-320 UT) but more points than almost any other. It'll depend on your definition of a shootout - if you include special teams touchdowns (of which there are three in this game), it deserves to be ranked this high. Tennessee was down 24-7 with 4:50 to play in the second quarter, then outscored Georgia 44-9 the rest of the way. The fourth quarter of this game goes like this for UT: touchdown, blocked punt touchdown, UGA kick return TD, touchdown, fumble, touchdown, interception.
2. 2001: #6 Tennessee 38 - Kentucky 35 (Lexington)
When I think of a shootout, this is always the game I picture. It had all the back-and-forth stuff, but more than any other it also just had the feel that either offense could literally score a touchdown on every play, more than any other game I can ever remember. The second act of three great UT/UK shootouts in a ten year span, this one featured Casey Clausen vs. Jared Lorenzen, and a stunning 21-0 Kentucky lead. The Vols rallied to tie the game by the third quarter, then the two teams traded 24 points in the final nine minutes. When UT had to settle for the game's only field goal with 2:49 to play, it felt like a loss...and if not for Chase Harp's fumble at the UT 35, it very easily could've been. Jared Lorenzen threw for 406 yards, with Derek Abney getting 10 catches for 118. Clausen got 285, but it was Donte Stallworth who won the game for the Vols: 8 catches for 156 yards, completely unstoppable.
1. 2007: #19 Tennessee 52 - Kentucky 50 (4 OT) (Lexington)
The difference between this game and UT's two other marathon overtime affairs is that regulation play in this one was equally great. Tennessee scored on the very first play and led 24-7 at halftime, then 31-14 late in the third quarter. With the Vols playing for Atlanta, Kentucky rallied to pull within three late in the fourth, then drove ninety yards in eighteen plays...before settling for a tying field goal at the one yard line on the final play of regulation. The overtimes created video game stat lines: Erik Ainge threw for 397 yards, 7 TDs and 3 INTs. Andre Woodson went for 430 yards, 6 TDs, and 2 INTs. The teams combined for more than 100 points and more than 1,000 yards.