It's no secret that losses aren't fun. And for the hardcore fans, a bad loss remains not fun for days, weeks, or even years. There's nothing players and fans want more than to erase the bitter taste by replacing it with the sweet taste of victory.
Of course, not just any victory will do. You can't lose to Florida and then go out and lay 40 on Buffalo and expect everyone to feel better. To move past a big loss, you need to follow it with a big win.
Not everyone has the opportunity to set things right a week later, especially not good teams. If you're accustomed to a high level of success, it takes a high level of opponent to redeem yourself, and those just aren't on the schedule every week, even in the SEC. After all of Manning's losses to Florida, he had to content himself with destroying a mediocre outfit from one of the Mississippi schools the following week. Even worse is having two weeks to stew over a loss that occurs just before a bye week, a fate that befell Tennessee several times in the 2000s because of the placement of the Georgia game.
And even in the few cases that there is opportunity knocking, it can be extremely difficult to answer. There's a perception that good teams will refocus and come out fired up following a particularly bad loss, but this seems no more common than coming out completely flat the following week. It's not easy to refocus and come out firing. I'd argue that recovering from heartbreak is actually a real strength of Lane Kiffin as a head coach--destroying an only slightly inferior South Carolina team fresh off that ending in Tuscaloosa was no easy feat. We saw how bad the other side of that coin can be the following year, when Tennessee responded to a gut-wrenching loss to LSU by not even showing up to Athens the following week.
But as rare as it might be to both have and take advantage of that opportunity, Tennessee has managed it several times in the last twenty years, mostly--through an increase in back-to-back games against elite teams--in the 2000s. In 2009, they responded to a home loss to an average Auburn team with a dismantling of Georgia and to a heartbreaker against Alabama with a dismantling of South Carolina. In 2005, one of the more overlooked because of what else happened that season, the Vols followed a 16-7 loss to Florida with a furious second-half rally and an overtime win on the road against a top five team in a rare Monday night college football game in Baton Rouge.
But the one that sticks in my mind is the year before. On October 2nd, 2004, College GameDay was in town for a matchup of two undefeated teams. #10 Tennessee, platooning two true freshmen at quarterback, won an impressive scalp two weeks before in a 30-28 defeat of Florida, and #8 Auburn had one to match, with a 10-9 win over LSU. Tennessee came into the game as a slight favorite, and Neyland was rocking. But it wouldn't stay rocking for long. Tennessee turned the ball over six times, and Auburn controlled the game from start to finish, winning 34-10.
On October 9, 2004, Tennessee went with much less fanfare to Athens to visit #3 Georgia. Remember that LSU team that came within just one point of Auburn? While Tennessee was losing badly to one group of Tigers, Georgia was dismantling another, defeating LSU 45-16 and seemingly clearly establishing themselves as the class of the SEC.
There wasn't much hope in the Volunteer state. Georgia had just won by 29 points against a team that all evidence suggested was equal in quality to the one who had blasted the Vols by 24 in Neyland. And on top of that, UT was bringing their true freshman QB tandem into Sanford Stadium for their first career road games. I remember one of the columnists for the Johnson City Press spending his weekly piece explaining in great detail why Tennessee had absolutely nothing resembling a chance of beating the Bulldogs. Vegas agreed, installing UGA as a 13-point favorite.
But then something funny happened. Facing a 3rd and 11 from his own 19 on the opening series, Erik Ainge hit Derrick Tinsley for 39 yards (by the way, how many times was Tinsley involved in huge, game-changing plays during his time on the Hill?). Seven plays later, he hit Bret Smith for a 22-yard touchdown grab. On the next drive, Ainge again drove the Vols inside the Georgia 20, and a Wilhoit field goal put Tennessee up 10-0.
While it looked like a good start, there can't have been many convinced it would hold up. After all, David Greene, the battle-hardened 5th-year senior who had beaten the Vols three times on his way to becoming the all-time wins leader, had thrown 5 TDs and put up 45 points against LSU. Folks could be forgiven for figuring Tennessee would need a much bigger lead if they were to withstand the Georgia rally. But the Tennessee defense wasn't interested in giving Greene any time to rally. He took five sacks, completed just 44% of his passes, and failed to reach the end zone, with Georgia's only touchdown pass coming from change-of-pace quarterback D.J. Shockley.
The Vols weren't able to run away with it, but they were able to frustrate Georgia's offense and never let the Bulldogs take back the lead. When Greene's last pass fell incomplete as time expired, Tennessee had secured a 19-14 victory and replaced the bitter taste of the Auburn loss with a sweet road victory. As a double-digit underdog. Over a division rival. In the top five.
When people recall their favorite Tennessee games, this one is often overlooked. And for some good reasons. There was no dominant individual performance, no memorable comeback, and no outburst of offense. But you don't get many wins as a double-digit underdog. And you don't get many road wins over top 5 teams. So the ones you do get are sweet. Especially because this one was the key to an SEC East championship. And even more specially because of the taste it washed away. When it comes to recovering from bad losses, there's no cure like a big win.
[note: I swear I had this scheduled for today since before watching last night's softball game, but I won't complain if the Lady Vols can do the '04 team proud tonight.]