A loaded showdown with Peyton Manning's 95 Vols against the dynamic 2001 squad...
This may be the best and closest matchup in the entire tournament. The 95 Vols finished second in the coaches' poll. The 01 Vols were second in the BCS before falling to LSU in the SEC Championship Game. Both can make a case as the most talented team in the entire field. Who ya got?
And then there's the '95 squad. After an 8-4 rebuilding year in '94 that saw freshman Peyton Manning eventually win the quarterback battle, the sophomore Manning put together an unbelievable season with just four interceptions all year. The Vols opened the season ranked #8, survived a shootout with Georgia 30-27 in game two, then blew a 30-14 lead in The Swamp as everything came undone in the second half of a 62-37 beatdown. The Gators would finish the regular season undefeated, denying Tennessee a spot in the SEC Championship Game. But the Vols wouldn't lose again either. Tennessee beat #18 Arkansas in Fayetteville 49-31. Then came the magic moment: ending a ten year winless streak against #12 Alabama in Birmingham in a resounding 41-14 victory. When we rankedPhillip Fulmer's 50 Greatest Wins in 2009, this game came in third.
The Vols jumped into the Top 5 with that win and stayed there for the duration, surviving a shootout with Kentucky to win 34-31 in Lexington. Tennessee went to the Citrus Bowl to face Ohio State with both teams tied at #4 in the AP Poll. I continue to believe that Ohio State team is the most talented team the Vols have ever faced...and the Vols won 20-14 in the downpour against Eddie George and the Buckeyes. Tennessee finished 11-1, third in the AP Poll, and second in the coaches' poll.
This team was stacked: Manning was just a sophomre, but he led a dynamic offense thanks to Joey Kent, Marcus Nash, and Jay Graham, as well as a senior-led offensive line. And this became one of the best defenses in school history by the end of the year, for my money...just ask Ohio State. This was John Chavis' first year as defensive coordinator; it started out a disaster in Gainesville, but these Vols were masterful by the time they got to Orlando. These Vols put eight players in the 1996 Draft alone.
1995: 11-1, Final AP Rank #3
QB: Peyton Manning
RB: Jay Graham
WR: Joey Kent, Marcus Nash, Scot Pfeiffer
OL: Jason Layman, Trey Peterson, Jeff Smith, Bubba Miller, Robert Poole
DL: Leonard Little, Shane Burton, Bill Duff, Steve White
LB: Jesse Sanders, Tyrone Hines, Scott Galyon
DB: Terry Fair, DeRon Jenkins, Raymond Austin, Tori Noel
2001: 11-2, East Division Champions, Final AP Rank #4
The '01 Vols were two of the most heartbreaking losses in program history away from an undefeated regular season, and even the Hobnailed Boot didn't prevent them from controlling their own destiny in December. Playing one of the most ambitious schedules the Vols have ever faced, the Vols beat both Syracuse and Notre Dame in the non-conference, plus conquered LSU in the divisional rotation. Kelley Washington became a superstar in that meeting, setting the school record for receiving yards in a single game. This team was paced by the most dangerous WR/TE combo in school history with Washington, Donte Stallworth, and Jason Witten, and sophomore Casey Clausen was extremely efficient in getting them the ball. This was also one of the most balanced offenses in school history, as Travis Stephens set the single season rushing record and powered the Vols with 200+ yards against Arkansas and Florida. It was the win against the #2 Gators in Gainesville in December as an 18 point underdog that solidified this team's place in school history, the 34-32 win going down as one of the best individual games in UT lore. The Vols moved to #2 in the BCS with the win, claimed the East title, and then gave it away in Atlanta against LSU. A 45-17 beatdown of Michigan was a nice consolation prize. The offense gets a lot of credit, but this also may be the best defensive line in school history and one of the best defensive tackle pairings in SEC history.
QB: Casey Clausen
RB: Travis Stephens, Will Bartholomew
WR: Donte Stallworth, Kelley Washington, Jason Witten
OL: Reggie Coleman, Fred Weary, Scott Wells, Jason Respert, Will Ofenheusle
DL: Will Overstreet, John Henderson, Albert Haynesworth, Bernard Jackson
LB: Eddie Moore, Dominique Stevenson, Keyon Whiteside
DB: Andre Lott, Jabari Greer, Rashad Baker, Julian Battle