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From The VOLult: Tennessee's Toughest Opponents (since 1990)

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We break in a new feature here at RTT by trying to find something positive about the fact that one of our most hated rivals is on the precipice of a second National Championship in three years, which they'll play for a month after they beat our other most hated rival in the SEC Championship Game. If it can possibly get worse than #1 Alabama vs. #2 Florida for the conference title and a spot in the BCS title game, while our former head coach watches from a luxury suite because he was forceably removed for going 5-7...I don't want to know about it.

This will mark the third consecutive year the Vols have played the National Champion during the course of the season should the Gators prevail in Miami, and going back a little further, Tennessee has gone against a team that played for the National Championship that same season eleven times in the last two decades.

Often times we go back and take a look at the best the Vols had to offer...but what about the opponents? In the last two decades, who's the best team the Vols have played?

Here's a look at 16 of Tennessee's most talented opponents since 1990, all of whom were involved in the National Championship conversation at the end of the season:

90 Colorado

Record: 11-1-1, National Champions (split w/ Georgia Tech)

Against the Vols: 31-31 tie (Pigskin Classic - Anaheim)

End of Season: Beat #5 Notre Dame 10-9 in Orange Bowl, final ranking #1

Key Players: QB Darian Hagan, RB Eric Bieniemy, WR Mike Pritchard, LB Alfred Williams

The Vols, who had a crazy season in 1990 themselves, rallied from a 24-10 hole in the second half to force a tie with the Buffs in the season opener. CU lost to Illinois 23-22 two weeks later, and got some help from the infamous Fifth Down Game against Missouri, but would eventually roll behind Bieniemy in knocking off Washington and then #3 Nebraska to position themselves. When Notre Dame lost in the final week of the season, it opened the door for Colorado to move to #1 and face the Irish in the Orange Bowl. Behind a blocked extra point and a questionable clipping call, the Buffaloes won 10-9 and held onto their #1 ranking in the AP poll to win the school's only National Championship.

90 Notre Dame

Record: 9-3

Against the Vols: 34-29 win (Knoxville)

End of Season: Lost to #1 Colorado 10-9 in Orange Bowl, final ranking #6

Key Players: QB Rick Mirer, RB Rickey Watters, WR Rocket Ismail, DT Chris Zorich, CB Todd Lyght

One of Lou Holtz' best teams played a full slate of big games. The Irish would take the top spot in the polls in the second week of the season after BYU's upset of Miami, then they beat #4 Michigan 28-24 and #24 Michigan State 20-19 in consecutive weeks in September. They weren't immune to the upset, falling to Stanford in October. But they would rebound to beat #2 Miami in South Bend, and eventually make their way back to #1.

That's where they found themselves when they came into Knoxville on November 10, 1990, in one of the greatest games ever played at Neyland Stadium. The Vols had tied Colorado and Auburn and lost to Alabama, but were still ranked #9 and had plenty of talent themselves on a team that would eventually win the SEC Championship for the second straight year. Before we couldn't beat Florida, before Fulmer, before Manning and BCS polls and 1998...this game was as big as it got in Knoxville.

In a back and forth affair, Tennessee took the lead in the third quarter and kept Notre Dame's immense talent in check for about three and a half quarters. Notre Dame went in front 27-23 in the 4th quarter, then looked to deliver the knockout punch when Rocket Ismail went 43 yards for a score on a toss sweep with only 3:30 to play.

Undeterred, Andy Kelly used Carl Pickens and others to march the Vols downfield for a quick score. Then the Vols actually recovered an onside kick - can't remember this happening any other time in the last two decades - and drove within striking distance again. I was nine years old sitting in the stadium, and I knew we were going to win and so did everyone else. You just felt it.

Then Kelly was intercepted in the end zone.

The Irish stayed atop the polls and looked to capture another National Championship, but lost to Penn State in the regular season finale, then lost to Colorado in the Orange Bowl. Despite the 9-3 record, this is by far one of the most talented and explosive teams to step foot in Neyland Stadium in the last two decades.

91 Penn State

Record: 11-2

Against the Vols: 42-17 win (Fiesta Bowl)

End of Season: Won Fiesta Bowl, final ranking #3

Key Players: QB Tony Sacca, WR OJ McDuffie, TE Kyle Brady, DB Reggie Givens

Penn State came into the Fiesta Bowl on the cusp of the national elite, and it looked like they were going to stay there. Dale Carter fumbled the opening kickoff to help give the Nittany Lions a 7-0 lead, but the Vols scored the next 17 points and behind what was a great day for Andy Kelly, led 17-7 in the third quarter.

Penn State then scored five touchdowns in eight minutes, a surreal ending to Kelly's Vol career along with several others. OJ McDuffie and Kyle Brady went on to successful NFL careers, and the Nittany Lions finished the season ranked third in both major polls. Penn State has had the Vols' number in bowl games in the last two decades.

92 Alabama

Record: 13-0, National Champions

Against the Vols: 17-10 win (Knoxville)

End of Season: Beat #1 Miami 34-13 in Sugar Bowl, final ranking #1

Key Players: QB Jay Barker, WR David Palmer, DE John Copeland, DE Eric Curry, LB Lemanski Hall, LB Michael Rogers, LB Antonio London, CB Antonio Langham, CB George Teague, SS Sam Shade

The best SEC defense of the modern era, and arguably the best defensive end tandem in SEC history. The Tide weren't sexy but they never had to be in the regular season - they saved that for New Orleans. Before they got there, Alabama struggled against Southern Miss and Louisiana Tech in close wins. The Vols were the first ranked team they faced, and Alabama caught the Vols at a great time, coming off a stunning upset against Arkansas.

The 17-10 win over the Vols in Knoxville - Bama's seventh in a row - would be the last close game they played in the regular season. Against Steve Spurrier's Gators in the first SEC Championship Game, Alabama again used defense to win in a 28-21 classic. Still, the Tide were largely an afterthought up against #1 Miami - Alabama had played no one ranked in the top ten all season.

But in the Sugar Bowl, Bama emphatically silenced the doubters with a 34-13 woodshed job to win an undisputed National Championship.

While Jay Barket kept the ship afloat on offense, the defense dominated: they allowed more than 300 yards once all season, against Florida. Copeland and Curry each had 10.5 sacks, Langham and Teague each had six picks. You do not want to play against this defense.

95 Ohio State

Record: 11-2

Against the Vols: 20-14 loss (Citrus Bowl)

End of Season: Lost Citrus Bowl, final ranking #6

Key Players: QB Bobby Hoying, RB Eddie George, WR Terry Glenn, TE Rickey Dudley, OL Orlando Pace, LB Mike Vrabel, CB Shawn Springs, CB Antoine Winfield

If you're going based on pure talent, I'm not sure you beat this bunch. Ohio State rolled through most of their schedule all year long - outside of a 28-25 win at Penn State, they didn't play another game within single digits through their first eleven. In November, they outscored Minnesota, Indiana and Illinois 132-27. Eddie George was on his way to the Heisman and the Buckeyes were on their way to the Rose Bowl and potentially a share of the National Championship.

Then they played Michigan. And since John Cooper was still the coach, that meant trouble.

The Wolverines stunned Ohio State 31-23, and the Buckeyes lost the Rose Bowl and their shot at the big prize. George still won the Heisman, but OSU had to settle for the Citrus Bowl.

There, they found a 10-1 Tennessee team waiting that was also one poor half away from playing for the National Championship. In an absolute downpour in Orlando, the Vols didn't do much against the Buckeyes...but one Jay Graham run and one Peyton Manning bomb kept Tennessee in it, and down the stretch the Vols kicked field goals, and Ohio State kept fumbling. An ill-advised option call turned into a turnover that sealed Ohio State's fate, and what was a great season turned into a two game losing streak to finish. just don't see that much NFL talent on one team very often.

96 Florida

Record: 12-1, National Champions

Against the Vols: 35-29 win (Knoxville)

End of Season: Beat #1 Florida State 52-20 in Sugar Bowl, final ranking #1

Key Players: QB Danny Wuerffel, RB Fred Taylor, RB Terry Jackson, WR Ike Hilliard, WR Jacquez Green, WR Reidel Anthony, OG Donnie Young, LB Mike Pearson, CB Fred Weary, SS Lawrence Wright

Those names still give me a cold chill.

Since the names are the same for many of those mid-90s Gator teams, we just went with the one that won it all. If you're a Vol fan you know the drill for these teams, and you also probably remember what the Gators did in the first half of "The Game of the Century" in Knoxville in 1996, jumping to a 35-0 lead and "hanging on" to win.

Beating the Vols made Florida #1, and aside from a stray close game against Vanderbilt, these Gators killed teams much the same way today's Gators do: 56-13 over LSU, 51-10 over Auburn the very next week, then 47-7 over Georgia after taking the week off. Yikes.

Danny Wuerffel met his match at Doak Campbell, as the Seminoles beat Florida 24-21. But when the Gators beat Alabama 45-30 in the SEC Championship Game and Texas stunned Nebraska in the Big 12 title clash, the rematch between the in-state rivals was on...and Florida never looked back after breaking the game open in a 52-20 win.

If you're trying to pick the best opponent the Vols have faced, it's tough to go against Spurrier's Gators. Unless, of course, you're dealing with...

97 Nebraska

Record: 13-0, National Champions (split w/ Michigan)

Against the Vols: 42-17 win (Orange Bowl)

End of Season: Won Orange Bowl, final ranking #2 (AP)/#1 (Coaches)

Key Players: QB Scott Frost, RB Ahman Green, DE Grant Wistrom, DT Jason Peter

Much like Andy Kelly and Heath Shuler against Penn State, Peyton Manning's UT career did not end the way we wanted it to.

Nebraska won their third National Championship in four years behind the same dominant triple option attack - Scott Frost had more than 1,000 yards rushing and passing, Ahman Green was second in the nation in rushing yards, and outside of the kicked ball game against Missouri and a tussle with rival Colorado, this team was never threatened.

When Tom Osborne announced his retirement in the weeks leading up to the Orange Bowl showdown with #3 Tennessee, you knew it could be trouble for the Vols. When Michigan held off Washington State in the Rose Bowl, meaning Tennessee couldn't get a piece of the National Championship action, you worried even more.

It was only 14-3 at halftime, Manning playing with a knee that was less than 100% and Jamal Lewis having lost a costly fumble. But in the second half, Nebraska left no doubt and made the necessary statement to get a piece of the national title: they outscored the Vol starters 28-6, saw Green rush for an Orange Bowl record 201 yards, and held Manning to 131 yards passing. And along the way, they physically beat Tennessee down.

If the thought of playing Spurrier's Gators gives me cold chills, the thought of playing these guys again makes me want to run and hide. Still, you can credit this loss as a lesson that the 98 Vols learned very well, being tough enough to take on...

98 Florida State

Record: 10-2

Against the Vols: 23-16 loss (BCS Championship)

End of Season: Lost BCS Championship, final ranking #3

Key Players: QB Chris Weinke, RB Travis Minor, WR Peter Warrick, DE Corey Simon, CB Dexter Jackson

The Noles did what Florida State did in the 90s, except for an early slip-up against NC State - they beat everybody. They got fortunate to do so against the Gators and lost Chris Weinke in the process, but along the way they built the nation's best defense (statistically), won the ACC again and would play for the National Championship...again.

In Tempe, the Vols proved who actually had the best defense and the best wide receiver, Warrick's one catch for seven yards aside. They didn't have Weinke that night, but I'm not sure it would've made a difference in the outcome - in 1998 nobody was beating the Vols, and this FSU team with their great defense was simply the last to fall.

01 Florida

Record: 10-2

Against the Vols: 34-32 loss (Gainesville)

End of Season: Beat #6 Maryland 56-23 in Orange Bowl, final ranking #3

Key Players: QB Rex Grossman, RB Earnest Graham, WR Jabar Gaffney, WR Reche Caldwell, DE Alex Brown, LB Andra Davis, CB Guss Scott, SS Marquand Manuel

Spurrier's final Florida team was a case of almost - a field goal against Auburn and a two point conversion against the Vols kept Florida out of the National Championship picture, and the latter cost them the SEC East title as well.

Rex Grossman put up Heisman-like numbers all season throwing to the Gaffney/Caldwell combo, and though Travis Stephens' performance against them hurt their image, this team had a very solid defense as well. Grossman's offense scored 40+ points 8 times, and smoked Maryland in the Orange Bowl in Spurrier's final game.

02 Georgia

Record: 13-1

Against the Vols: 18-13 win (Athens)

End of Season: Beat #16 Florida State 26-13 in Sugar Bowl, final ranking #3

Key Players: QB David Greene, RB Musa Smith, WR Terrence Edwards, WR Fred Gibson, OT Jon Stinchcomb, DT Jonathan Sullivan, LB Boss Bailey

Mark Richt's second team is still his best. Georgia did what they usually couldn't and lost to Florida, but that would be their only blemish on the year. The Dawgs still won the SEC Championship after playing in the title game for the first time ever, and captured their first Sugar Bowl win in twenty years.

David Greene was just a sophomore in '02, but was already establishing himself as one of the modern era's best SEC quarterbacks by displaying his knack for simply winning games. Combined with Edwards and Gibson and the running of Musa Smith, Georgia's offense was highly balanced and highly effective.

Their season was dramatic - they beat Clemson 31-28, South Carolina 13-7, Alabama 27-25, a banged up Tennessee team 18-13, and a dramatic 24-21 win over Auburn. But just because they weren't blowing everybody out doesn't mean this team can't hold its own with the others on this list.

02 Miami

Record: 12-1

Against the Vols: 26-3 win (Knoxville)

End of Season: Lost BCS Championship to #2 Ohio State 31-24, final ranking #2

Key Players: QB Ken Dorsey, RB Willis McGahee, WR Andre Johnson, TE Kellen Winslow, DT William Joseph, LB DJ Williams, LB Jonathan Vilma, FS Sean Taylor

While not quite the juggernaut the '01 Canes were, when this Miami team came to Knoxville, it was the first time since we saw '97 Nebraska where I left shaking my head and thinking "You know, if we played them 100 times, they'd probably win 99."

Ken Dorsey, who you could make a credible case for as the best college QB of this decade, had fantasy football options to go to between McGahee, Johnson and Winslow. They held off Florida State 28-27, Pittsburgh 28-21 and Virginia Tech 56-45, and no one else came close...

until it mattered most. In the title game in Tempe, the Buckeye defense and a pass interference call denied this team back-to-back National Championships.

04 Auburn

Record: 13-0

Against the Vols: 34-10 win (Knoxville), 38-28 win (SEC Championship)

End of Season: Beat #9 Virginia Tech 16-13 in Sugar Bowl, final ranking #2

Key Players: QB Jason Campbell, RB Cadillac Williams, RB Ronnie Brown, DT Stanley McClover, LB Travis Williams, CB Carlos Rogers, FS Junior Rosegreen

One year after they were supposed to win it all, and after their head coach survived a tumultous set of weeks with his job security in jeopardy, Auburn beat everyone they faced and were left cold by the BCS.

Jason Campbell transformed into a great quarterback seemingly overnight, and the duo of Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown gets my vote as the best RB combo in the SEC's modern era (yes, better than D-Mac and Felix Jones).

At the core of what Auburn did so well was defense - the same defense that feasted on the Vols' freshmen QBs in the first meeting in Knoxville, forcing six turnovers. They stifled defending National Champion LSU 10-9 and kept Alabama at bay 21-13, and made sure the Tigers weren't tested in between.

In Atlanta, the Vols busted some big plays against their defense, but the Auburn offense was up to the task in a 38-28 win before falling back on the defense once more against Virginia Tech. We'll never know what they might've done against USC, but this team remains the last SEC team to finish a season undefeated.

06 Florida

Record: 12-1, National Champions

Against the Vols: 21-20 win (Knoxville)

End of Season: Beat #1 Ohio State 41-14 in BCS Championship, final ranking #1

Key Players: QB Chris Leak, WR Dallas Baker, WR Percy Harvin, DE Derrick Harvey, DT Ray McDonald, LB Earl Everett, LB Brandon Siler, DB Reggie Nelson

Unlike other Gator teams on this list, the true strength of the team was found on the defensive side of the ball. It allowed Florida to win close games over Tennessee, Alabama, LSU, Georgia, Vanderbilt, South Carolina, Florida State and Arkansas - all of which were in doubt in the 4th quarter. Questions arose over exactly how good these Gators were...

...until the National Championship Game, where they ambushed Ohio State 41-14, winning another National Championship on the 10th Anniversary of the '96 team.

Urban Meyer masterfully adapted his offense to the skills provided him at the time, using Chris Leak and small doses of Tim Tebow to score just enough points to win. The defense had three All-Americans and six All-SEC performers.

07 LSU

Record: 12-2, National Champions

Against the Vols: 21-14 win (SEC Championship)

End of Season: Beat #1 Ohio State 38-24 in BCS Championship, final ranking #1

Key Players: QB Matt Flynn, RB Jacob Hester, DT Glenn Dorsey, LB Darry Beckwith, LB Ali Highsmith, DB Chevis Jackson, DB Craig Steltz

Perhaps not quite as dominant as the '03 National Champions from Baton Rouge, but these Tigers' only lost two games in triple overtime, and similarly used a dominant defense along the way to the title.

They blew out Virginia Tech and then rolled the dice again and again and came up winners against the Gators 28-24. Like the '06 Gators, they had a flair for the dramatic until the final game of the season, outlasting Auburn, Alabama and Tennessee in key wins before busting loose against Ohio State in the title game.

Playing hard-nosed offense and physical defense, the Tigers placed 10 on the All-SEC squad.

08 Florida

Record: 12-1, playing for National Championship

Against the Vols: 30-6 win (Knoxville)

Last Game: Beat #2 Alabama 31-20 in SEC Championship, ranked #1

Key Players: QB Tim Tebow, WR Percy Harvin, DE Jermaine Cunningham, LB Brandon Spikes, FS Major Wright

These Gators have put up numbers like their 90's predecessors, behind another Heisman-finalist year from Tim Tebow and plenty of excitement from Percy Harvin. Florida lost to Ole Miss by one point, but they've grown up a lot - in the final eight games of the regular season, they went 8-0 and won by an average score of 52-12.

In a de facto National Semifinal, they showed toughness in a close game, beating the final team on our list 31-20. If they can knock off Oklahoma to win a second National Championship in three years, the Gators will once again cement themselves as one of the top programs of the decade in college football.

08 Alabama

Record: 12-1, playing Utah in Sugar Bowl

Against the Vols: 29-9 win (Knoxville)

Last Game: Lost 31-20 to #2 Florida in SEC Championship

Key Players: QB John Parker Wilson, RB Glenn Coffee, WR Julio Jones, OL Andre Smith, OL Antoine Caldwell, DT Terrence Cody, LB Rolando McClain, DB Rashad Johnson

Nick Saban's Tide earned a measure of respect for a 12-0 regular season, though some questioned the quality of their schedule as wins against Clemson, Georgia and Tennessee looked worse as the year went along. However, while they fell to Florida in the SEC title game, their performance there probably earned this team even more respect in the national consciousness, and beating Utah in the Sugar Bowl should assure them a final ranking in the top three.

Mixing youth and experience, Saban's Tide has used heady play from John Parker Wilson with great defense, and until the SEC Championship they simply never got behind for any serious length of time, often scoring off turnovers or great special teams plays and then leaning on the opposition for the rest of the night.

'08 Alabama joins '07 LSU and '06 Florida as teams that may not look that spectacular on paper, but simply knew how to win and almost always did so, and as such gave themselves every chance to win it all.

So, who's the best?

We've included all the teams who were in the National Championship conversation that the Vols have faced in the last two decades. It's interesting to look at the potential matchups should these teams mythically play head-to-head - do these teams have someone to cover Rocket Ismail? Could they have stopped Eddie George? Could anyone have scored enough points to beat '92 Alabama? Which Florida team of the four on this list is truly the best? Are we still underrating Auburn's undefeated team? And could anybody have stopped Nebraska's triple option?

It also depends on how you look at things and weigh what's most important: 90 Notre Dame, 95 Ohio State, 01 Florida and 02 Miami are in a class by themselves for their immense NFL talent. But 92 Alabama, 96 Florida and 97 Nebraska were so good at doing their system, perhaps they're better selections.

If pressed, my vote would go to 97 Nebraska just for the way they dominated Tennessee, which seems to weigh more heavily in my mind than anything else. But on a neutral field with the same players in their prime, I'm not sure anyone looks better on paper than 95 Ohio State...and the Vols beat them.

Who gets your vote?