Nine years ago the greatest game Neyland Stadium has ever seen unfolded in front of what remains a record crowd. The 2004 Tennessee-Florida game had everything: freshmen quarterbacks, a Gator coach on the edge, Chris Leak in front of the fanbase he betrayed, and all the passion of a rivalry that had suddenly become very even. After five straight Florida wins from 1992-97, Tennessee and Florida traded victories for the next six years. And as always, the winner would control their own story in the SEC's championship race.
The greatest game Tennessee has ever played in took place just three years earlier in Gainesville, which we've touched on already in our 100 Days of Vols countdown. Aside from the rivalry and what was on the line, the 2001 Florida-Tennessee game is great because there are a total of three punts in it; at one point the game went 18 consecutive drives without one. Things happened.
The '04 edition wasn't quite as thrilling, but it was close, and because it was in Knoxville it remains the best many of us, including me, have ever seen in person: five total punts, the first one not coming until the ninth drive of the game. Florida outgained Tennessee 421-403 and won the turnover battle 3-1. Both teams converted at least half of their third downs. The Vols were 2-2 on fourth down. This game was sensationally even.
And that's where it should've been with 3:25 to play, when Erik Ainge hit Jayson Swain from 13 yards out to make it 28-27. All we needed was the PAT. James Wilhoit was 50 of 50 on extra points at this stage of his career. But on the 51st try, he shanked it.
It happened right in front of my season tickets in Z11, and the first thought that went through my brain was, "I wonder how long it'll take me to get over this."
Down one, the Vols got a stop. Then got an assist from Dallas Baker and the referees. Then completed two passes to get in range. And then James Wilhoit told the old redemption story:
Aside from being the best individual game I've ever seen in person, this game is in my, "Top 5 Games That Didn't Take Place in 1998" list overall. It's in the pantheon with The Miracle at South Bend and the '95 Alabama game, victories that didn't lead directly to championships but will always stand the test of time.
The visual inside and over Neyland Stadium when this ball rocketed through the uprights was incredible: the blue-clad Gators, their hope now false, staring off into that distant sunset where surely that didn't just happen. The orange faithful overjoyed, dancing with all their might, their hope that a kicker who just missed an extra point could somehow make a 50 yarder instantly rewarded. There is no better feeling than hoping for something, really hoping, and not being sure if you'll get it, only to have your faith rewarded in the end.
It was the perfect end to an incredible game, and it's the last time Tennessee has beaten Florida. Here's to the hope of more good stories just a little further down the road...