There haven't been many highlights in the last five years. There have been, at best, five wins that have inspired any real confidence. And that's if you include a 52-14 beatdown on an Ole Miss team that lost to FCS Jacksonville State and a fumble-induced win as a touchdown favorite over a 7-6 South Carolina team.
The other three are the 2009 Georgia game, the 2011 Cincinnati game, and the 2012 North Carolina State game. All rode shocking offensive outbursts. All were marred somewhat by the coach that led them. But when we look back and try to remember the positive moments from 2008 to 2012, one game is going to stand out: the 2009 Georgia game.
Why? First of all, while the short-term ire from Kiffin's departure burned hot, the three-year malaise that followed it will leave a more lasting cloud on our memories. That may be controversial, but I believe it to be true. And second? The second reason is obvious. Cincinnati was from a conference that hardly deserved the BCS name. NC State was an anonymous mid-level ACC team. Georgia is Georgia. They're a border state and a conference rival. Beating Georgia is always sweet. And it was especially sweet in the 2000s, which is why I've written about it three times this summer.
There could be no questioning the fire of the 2009 team through the first month of the season, but one could certainly question their talent. While they put up 63 points on Western Kentucky (at the time a bad FCS team passing themselves off as FBS) and 34 on Ohio, their first eleven quarters against BCS opponents saw them put up 34 points--a pace of less than 13 per game. The offense did seem to find something in the fourth quarter against Auburn, but we've seen teams suddenly find offense when the defense was playing prevent before--it doesn't mean much.
So when Georgia came to down--coming off a narrow defeat to #4 LSU in no small part thanks to a terrible illegal celebration rule/call--I don't think anyone outside the Tennessee locker room expected what would happen.
Jonathan Crompton, who against Florida and UCLA had twice failed to reach 100 yards passing and had tossed 0 touchdowns and 5 interceptions, found his game. He just kept rolling right, cutting the field in half, and finding his man. And Georgia couldn't stop it. By halftime he had over 200 yards and three touchdowns. He finished with a 74.1% completion percentage, 310 yards, four touchdowns, and just one interception. One of the touchdowns was one of my favorite plays of the year (which met a too-early end in our summer best plays bracket), Denarius Moore's Flying Touchdown. Another was a 51-yard bomb to Gerald Jones that made it 38-19 and really put the game out of reach.
The offensive performance came out of absolutely nowhere, but it was powerful, and it sustained hope for the rest of the season. If Jonathan Crompton could lead an offensive juggernaut for an afternoon, anything was possible.
And let's not forget the defense, whose play was less unexpected but possibly even more impressive. Not once in that game would Georgia cross the 30-yard line. They scored 19 points off two non-offensive touchdowns, a safety, and a 52-yard field goal. The Vols' defense completely shut down the Georgia offense.
Circumstances might make some games stand out more than others or put a black mark on games that would otherwise be exemplary. But a joyous, unexpected 45-19 beatdown of a rival will never go unremembered, and this one will be one of the few positive memories that stick out from the first years of the post-Fulmer era.