Anytime this game comes up in conversation or on this site, I always mention how it still remains the best environment I've ever seen for a football game. When the SEC Championship Game was created in 1992 every fanbase had their eyes on Birmingham, then Atlanta. But the first five years belonged to Alabama and Florida, with one special guest appearance by Arkansas. Two of the league's most traditional powers, Tennessee and Auburn, had to wait to experience the title game, and those five years significantly upped the ante on ticket demand and general excitement once the Vols and Tigers finally made it in 1997. Tennessee needed two Florida losses to retake the Eastern Division lead after another September heartbreak in Gainesville, but this time Florida was finally willing to oblige. The Gators fell to LSU, then finally tripped up in the Cocktail Party to open the door for Tennessee, and the Vols won their first division title.
Adding fuel to the fire was the renewal of an old rivalry. In 2013 there's no extra significance to having Auburn on our schedule this fall. But from 1956 through 1991, the Tigers were our second biggest rival. Tennessee and Auburn met annually for 35 years. Consider all the animosity you have for Florida and Georgia today. Now consider we've only been playing those two annually for 21 years. The Tennessee-Auburn rivalry is a great example of how the flames of secondary rivalries are always eventually replaceable - we'll always have a special place in our hearts for Alabama, but there's enough disdain left for whoever the league decides to put on our schedule after that. It may be the Gators and Dawgs now, but for a generation before them Auburn was the second biggest game of the year. It stopped in 1991, meaning the 1997 SEC Championship Game was the first meeting between two old rivals in six years. And this rivalry absolutely still meant something then.
Then there were the stakes. In the final year before the BCS Auburn was ranked 11th, playing for its first SEC Championship since they split the title with the Vols and Alabama in 1989 and a trip to the Sugar Bowl. But Tennessee was ranked third and still very much alive for the National Championship. Michigan and Nebraska were undefeated but the Bowl Alliance had no agreement with the Rose Bowl, meaning the Wolverines would play Ryan Leaf and Washington State, while the Vols would get their shot at Nebraska in the Orange with a win in Atlanta. We all know what eventually happened here, but at the time, you knew if Washington State beat Michigan, Tennessee could win the National Championship outright. But we had to get through Auburn first, and since this was our first ever trip to Atlanta, this game did not at all feel like the undercard. This was the main event.
At the center of it all was Peyton Manning. The senior quarterback was still playing for the Heisman Trophy, all eyes on him with Michigan's regular season finished. Manning had already set the school record for passing yards and would get conference records for passing yards and wins by a starting quarterback in this game. But not only was this game a chance for him to have the last word in the Heisman conversation, but a chance to win a game everyone considered the proverbial big one. Manning had turned the entire Alabama rivalry around, forever answering questions about winning big games to those in Knoxville. But staring at 0-4 vs Florida in the rear view mirror, Manning needed this win on this stage for this ring to prove he and Tennessee deserved a shot at the National Championship.
In the Georgia Dome, a then-record 74,896 people pushed this thing over the top. It remains the only truly neutral site I've ever seen, and by neutral, I mean hostile. Tennessee and Auburn split the Dome at the 50 yard line, with our shade of orange and their shade of blue standing in stark and equal contrast. None of the other four SEC title games or any of the bowl games I've seen us play in had this much balance in the stands. Everyone wanted to be there, none of us had ever seen this game before or each other in six years, and everything was on the line.
And Tennessee played like it out of the gates. Peyton Manning found Peerless Price behind the defense for 40 yards on the opening drive, and Tennessee raced to a 7-0 lead. On such a big stage in such a great environment, an early strike like this makes you feel like it's just going to be your night.
It wasn't. For the next three quarters, if it could go wrong, it did.
After an Auburn field goal made it 7-3, the Vols fell victim to the first of an unbelievable six turnovers. Auburn raced a fumble back to the end zone to lead 10-7, kicked another field goal to lead 13-7, then scored on a deep ball after another turnover to jump in front 20-7 in the second quarter. Tennessee fumbled six times, lost four of them, and Manning was victimized twice with interceptions, one on a fluke bobbled ball in mid-air. Jeff Hall cut it to 20-10 going to the locker room, but Auburn had all the momentum.
Tennessee looked to steal it back with an early third quarter touchdown, but Auburn responded with one of their own to push the lead back to ten at 27-17. Midway through the third quarter things were getting awfully tight. But it was the Vol defense who stepped up and stopped the bleeding. The Vols allowed 181 yards in the first half, but just 66 in the second. Getting pressure on Dameyune Craig was the biggest defense, as the Vols recorded five sacks on the Auburn signal caller and held the Tigers to -15 rushing yards for the game.
Meanwhile, Manning again hooked up with Peerless Price late in the third quarter to cut the lead to 27-23. But continuing the theme of if it can go wrong, it will, the extra point was blocked and Auburn ran it back for two. Suddenly a tying field goal was off the table as Auburn led 29-23 going to the fourth quarter.
But again the Vol defense made a stop, and with eleven minutes to play, Tennessee finally broke through for the lead. Manning hit Marcus Nash on the near sideline, Nash broke one tackle, and he was gone for 73 yards and the go-ahead score. Tennessee led for the first time since 7-0 at 30-29, and the feeling in the Georgia Dome was a pure release of elation that had been building for three quarters. Tennessee had been tested in every possible way, but now finally, finally had the lead again. But there was work left to be done.
Again, the Vol defense made it happen. After six Tennessee turnovers, Auburn finally gave one up as Craig fumbled and the Vols recovered. From there Tennessee turned the game over to Jamal Lewis, who salted it away with 31 carries for 127 yards, both SEC Championship Game records. The Vols ran out the clock and won their first SEC Championship in seven years, 30-29. The celebration in Atlanta was on, and the Vol half of the stadium stayed late and went deep into the night. Between the environment, the stakes, and the comeback, this was one of the most enjoyable nights to be a Tennessee fan.
With Michigan surviving Washington State and taking UT's title hopes off the table, this one still goes down as the most important game of Manning's career. How did he do? 25 of 43 for 373 yards and four touchdowns. For my money it is his best individual performance on the biggest stage the Vols saw during his time in Knoxville. The Vols won the SEC Championship, and he got his ring. How's that for winning the big one?