100 Days of Vols: #84 - Travis Stephens Helps Vols Drain the Swamp

USA TODAY Sports

It was Tennessee's last hurrah on the national championship scene -- a 2001 clash in Gainesville against the Florida Gators. Stephens' 226-yard, two-touchdown performance pushed the Vols into the SEC Championship Game.

It remains the best quote I've ever heard in person. Following Tennessee's 34-32 victory over Florida on Dec. 1, 2001 in the Swamp, UT defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth basked in the glow of victory. Never one to guard his words, the future NFL All-Pro crowed:

"It's The Swamp, I guess. But we made it a little ol' pond today."

If there was one young man who pulled the stopper out of the Swamp's drain, it was 5-foot-9, 190-pound senior running back Travis Stephens -- a picture of perseverance who wound up cementing his name in the halls of Tennessee history. But to really understand and appreciate Stephens' 2001 season and what it meant, we have to rewind a bit.

I'll never forget the early September day of 1999 when Stephens had just apparently had a discussion with coach Phillip Fulmer about redshirting. I was a sophomore reporter covering practice for the Daily Beacon, and Stephens -- who was in the midst of a junior year that had seen him phased out -- sort of stormed off the field with a disappointed look on his face. He had just essentially demanded that Fulmer let him redshirt.

He had just spent his sophomore year gaining 477 yards and teaming with Travis Henry to lead the Vols to a national championship following Jamal Lewis's season-ending injury. But with Lewis and Henry back and the Vols with a logjam in the backfield, Stephens was losing carries and playing time.

"He doesn't want to waste a year," Fulmer told us that day. "Travis has been a tremendously valuable young man to our program and did a great job last year. There's just not enough snaps to be taken unless we have an injury."

Said Stephens later:

"I think I would have transferred if he had said no because I really wanted to have one season at Tennessee as the feature back. I wasn't trying to be selfish. All I wanted was my opportunity."

Though Stephens wasn't happy with being put on the backburner to a pair of runners who would eventually become two of the best in school history, he stayed. He waited his turn, and that turn came in 2001. That season, he was simply incredible, rushing 291 times for 1,464 yards and 10 scores. But his crowning moment came on that late autumn night in the Swamp.

The game, like all Tennessee-Florida games, was scheduled for early in the season. There was the normal pregame trash talking between the schools in the week leading up to the game and the Monday of game week. Then, tragedy struck. As airplanes crashed into the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, the world's attention moved off sports and toward New York City. The game with Florida was postponed. Though UT fans have long wanted that game to be moved to season's end, nobody wanted it to happen this way.

But here we were, on Dec. 1, both teams entered at 9-1, 6-1 in the SEC with a trip to Atlanta on the line. For all Tennessee fans used to traveling to Gainesville in the muggy heat of late summer, experiencing that atmosphere in a cooler temperature was almost eery. To be honest, few Volunteers fans seemed really confident. Everybody in the nation had spent a week talking about how Steve Spurrier's Gators -- who'd dispatched SEC opponents by an average of 37.3 points per game -- were on a collision course with Nick Saban's LSU Tigers in the Georgia Dome.

According to Andy Staples, the build-up before the game included these golden words. "There is no other week after this. You win or you go home," Gators fifth-year senior Marquand Manuel said. "They could talk Rose Bowl or whatever they want, but there is no other week after this." Added UT defensive end Will Overstreet: "If they need a pep talk, they're dead."

Though Stephens hadn't been relied on as much with the emergence of Casey Clausen, Kelly Washington and Donte Stallworth, it was obvious early that this was his game. He carried the ball six times on the opening drive, which resulted in a score. Then, Stephens ran three more times on the next drive, scoring a touchdown of his own to make it 14-0 Vols. This was Stephens' stage, and the Clarksville native was going to shine.

"The atmosphere down in Florida was just tremendous. I didn't know what to expect, I just knew I was ready. I had tears in my eyes before the game. I was ready. Any play that was called I was going to execute it as perfectly as I could."

Though he was an early-game workhorse, Stephens couldn't get untracked. He wound up with 25 first-quarter yards on nine carries. Fulmer somehow only got him the ball twice in the second quarter, but one of those went for 49 yards and set UT up for a field goal.

The second half was his. Runs of 34 and 68 yards set up two Tennessee touchdowns as he wound up with a stunning 151 yards on just eight second-half carries. He gashed the Gators to the tune of long run after long run. Even so, Florida and Rex Grossman were so high-powered, nobody could pull away. But with UF leading 23-21, a Stephens 34-yard run set up the go-ahead touchdown. It was one of his many long runs.

He helped the fourth-ranked Vols finish off the second-ranked Gators. He was so much in the zone that he didn't even remember fracturing his wrist, an injury that hampered his effectiveness in Atlanta the following week.

I've seen many great rushing performances in person in my life. Robert Edwards' game against UT in 1995 was amazing before he tore his ACL. Jamal Lewis's freshman breakout against Georgia was sensational. Then, Dexter McCluster's unreal game against Lane Kiffin's Vols probably takes the cake. But for the stage and at the time and significance of the game, nothing matches Stephens sucking the Swamp dry.

It was one of my favorite moments as a Tennessee fan, and it capped off an All-American season and an unforgettable, unselfish career.

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