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The 50 Best Games of the Fulmer Era: 40-36

Round three of our countdown, as we move further and further into familiar territory with these memorable wins.  Still going five at a time as we get closer to the top...

The list so far...

  • 50. 1994:  Tennessee 45 - #17 Virginia Tech 23 (Gator Bowl)
  • 49. 1994:  #19 Tennessee 41 - #23 Georgia 23 (Athens)
  • 48. 1996:  #9 Tennessee 48 - #11 Northwestern 28 (Citrus Bowl)
  • 47. 1999:  #7 Tennessee 24 - Auburn 0 (Knoxville)
  • 46. 1996:  #7 Tennessee 29 - Georgia 17 (Athens)
  • 45. 2001:  #9 Tennessee 17 - #12 South Carolina 10 (Knoxville)
  • 44. 1993:  #6 Tennessee 38 - #22 Georgia 6 (Knoxville)
  • 43. 2006:  #11 Tennessee 31 - Air Force 30 (Knoxville)
  • 42. 2008:  Tennessee 28 - Kentucky 10 (Knoxville)
  • 41. 2000:  Tennessee 17 - #17 South Carolina 14 (Columbia)

The writeups so far...

Today, we make two trips to Tuscaloosa, two trips to the recent past, and say goodbye to our favorite player...

40. 2007:  #22 Tennessee 34 - Arkansas 13 (Knoxville)

So, here we were.  After the long and strange trip of 2007 had taken us to the depths of despair early, then stunningly resurrected itself against Georgia, then been taken down a peg again in Tuscaloosa, only to find good fortune in the Cocktail Party and capitalize against South Carolina...with three games to play, the Vols needed three wins to get to Atlanta.

Nothing was coming easy in 2007, but you still felt a little safer about Vanderbilt and Kentucky, because well...they're Vanderbilt and Kentucky.  But before the Vols and their much-maligned defense could get that far, they'd have to host Arkansas, and they'd have to find a way to stop a Heisman frontrunner and the rest of their loaded backfield.

The year before, Arkansas took Tennessee's good season and turned it into an average one, rushing for 259 yards in a 31-14 win in Fayetteville.

The week before, Arkansas played a South Carolina team believed to have one of the conference's best defenses.  They ran for numbers that still have to be triple-checked for what seem like obvious typos:  542 yards rushing on 58 carries, good for 9.3 yards per carry.

A fanbase that had struggled all year to fully place their faith in the Vols saw little evidence in the scouting report that this was the week to do so.  A 12:30 Lincoln Financial kickoff saw a noticeable percentage of the student body still in bed at kickoff.  Lots of things seemed to suggest that Tennessee had backed their way towards Atlanta as far as they could go, but this would be the day that ended the journey.

Instead, the 2007 season got even more surprising.

The Vols took the opening kickoff and scored a touchdown.  Austin Rogers, who appeared to be jawing at the Arkansas DBs - or at least returning verbal fire - all game, found the end zone to make it 7-0 Vols.

But that merely set the stage for what the Vol defense would do in the first half.

After allowing Arkansas a field goal on their first drive, then answering with their own three after a great kick return to make it 10-3, the Vol D produced five straight drives of three and out or worse, including a 4th down stop and an interception.  The vaunted Pig Sooie rushing attack produced one first down in the first half.

Felix Jones left with a thigh bruise after only three carries, Peyton Hillis failed to convert on a 4th and 1 carry, and while Darren McFadden would ultimately finish with 117 yards, I'm pretty sure they were the quietest 117 yards in the history of football.

Up 20-3 at halftime, the Vols found the dagger quickly in the third:


The Vols punished Arkansas in a fashion the Pigs were familiar with:  heavy on the run, winning time of possession by seven minutes, and not making mistakes.  Meanwhile, Arkansas committed 12 penalties and turned it over three times:  two picks from freshman Eric Berry, and a late pick by Jerod Mayo that was returned for a score to make the final 34-13. 

This game made the nonbelievers take note:  maybe this team really, really could get to Atlanta after all...

Post-Game Reaction:

- Joel @ RTT:  Vols Steal the Show

39. 1997:  #3 Tennessee 17 - Vanderbilt 10 (Knoxville)

Vanderbilt sighting!

Again, you have to remember the relative importance of the moment.  In 1997, the SEC had been playing their championship game for six years, and the Vols had never been.  And since mid-90s Florida teams just didn't lose, when the Vols lost again to the Gators in September 1997, you wrote off a trip to ATL once more.

But shockingly, the Gators lost to LSU in October, then lost in the Cocktail Party, and suddenly the Vols were in the driver's seat in the SEC East race.

Down to the wire, the Vols needed to close out at home against the Commodores.  Woody Widenhoffer's defenses were notoriously tough on Peyton Manning, who was playing his final home game along with Leonard Little, Marcus Nash, Terry Fair and several other Vol seniors who'd built the foundation under Fulmer.

The Vols didn't clear the final hurdle easily, and against Woody the Vols used heavy doses of freshman Jamal Lewis (196 yards on the day).  It took one final Manning bootleg late to put it to bed, 17-10.

After the game, Manning and Little took to the microphone and shared their sentiments over the PA, thanking the fans for their four years of support.  Winning the division for the first time and seeing Manning in Knoxville for the last time make this the most memorable of many Fulmer victories over our in-state rivals. 

38. 2001: #11 Tennessee 35 - Alabama 24 (Tuscaloosa)

The Vols sat with their wounds from The Hobnailed Boot Game for two long weeks.  During that time, Donte' Stallworth got healthy, and Jason Witten became a weapon.

Stallworth proved his worth on the opening drive, back from a season-opening injury to catch a touchdown pass that put the Vols up 7-0.  Leading 7-3 in the second quarter in a short yardage situation, Travis Stephens put a sick move on a defender at the line of scrimmage, then went 60 yards for a touchdown.

Tennessee's 2001 team could stand toe-to-toe with any team in Vol history, on both sides of the ball.  Their offensive strength was never more evident than on this day; while Stephens was keeping them honest, Casey Clausen put up better numbers in a competitive Alabama game than any Vol quarterback I can remember:  21 of 28, 293 yards, 2 touchdowns.  He spread the wealth around:  Stallworth 5 for 80, Kelley Washington 4 for 93, and Witten 7 for 91, including several defender-draggers and one touchdown.

The Vols put up 480 yards of offense, but it wasn't easy.  Santonio Beard put a hurting on the Vols' run defense, going for 141 yards and a touchdown on the final play of the third quarter that actually put Alabama up 24-21.  But from there, Tennessee put together one of the most dominant fourth quarters in the history of this rivalry.

The Vols went 84 yards in 17 plays to retake the lead, 28-24.  Alabama went three and out.

The Vols then went 72 yards in 10 plays to make it 35-24.  And again, Alabama went three and out.

The Vols held the Tide to six offensive plays in the final stanza, and pulled away for the victory.  This was the capper on seven straight years of victory over our biggest rivals, something never done before, and probably never to be done again.

37. 2007: Tennessee 27 - #15 South Carolina 24 (OT) (Knoxville)

A funny thing happened on the way to a 7:45 kickoff.

The Vols saved Fulmer's job and put themselves atop the SEC East race with a rousing 35-14 win over Georgia to open October.  But two weeks later, they gave it all away in Tuscaloosa, putting Florida back in the driver's seat and Fulmer back in the sweatbox.

In an already crazy college football season, the last weekend of October still offered little in the way of suspense on paper.  The week of this game, I wrote this on my old site:

The Gamecocks and Florida are the only two teams left who control their own SEC East destiny, with the Vols in relative third place, needing only the Florida loss to control their own fate and having lost only once, to the Gators, against divisional opponents. Florida is at the Cocktail Party this week, and if there's any way for this college football season to get any more insane, it would be Georgia winning this weekend in a series that's seen Florida win 15 of the last 17. Which is really the best reasoning I can give you for having hope that the Gators will lose this weekend. I'm just saying.


Driving down to Knoxville the day of the game, I couldn't even find the Florida/Georgia 3:30 kickoff on the radio.  So I kept trying to get my cell phone to refresh the scoreboard, but couldn't get that to work either. 

But all of a sudden, my phone starts blowing up.

People are calling to ask if I saw it.  Georgia scored.  And then their whole team rushed the field.

I laughed it off.  Because Georgia doesn't beat Florida.  All they did was piss them off, I said.

Funny thing.  Georgia kept scoring.

Florida would answer.  But then Georgia would score again.

And a realization begins to suddenly form in the minds of Vol Nation.

The Alabama loss floored us.  Took us out of the relative conversation, and we figured there was no way we'd get back in it.  Because Georgia doesn't beat Florida.

But now...a game against South Carolina that had most of us merely curious about how this team would respond to the Alabama that game was quickly becoming the de facto SEC East Championship.

When Georgia's win became final, the pregame atmosphere in Knoxville went from about a four to an eleven.  We had gone from nothing to everything to play for.

And out of the gate, the Vols played like it.

Eric Berry came up with two first half turnovers, and the Vols put one good drive between them...and Tennessee jumped ahead 21-0 at the break.  And we all felt great about things.

But then, just when you believed you had a firm grip on the direction of the 2007 season, here came South Carolina.

The Cocks piled on more than 300 yards of offense in the second half alone.  And Tennessee's 21-0 lead was a 21-21 tie and an incredibly short amount of time.

Down the stretch, neither team seemed like it wanted to win.  I think this is the best worst played game I've ever seen in my life.

Carolina would take the lead 24-21 and force the Vols, who'd gone three and out for most of the second half, to drive downfield to win or force overtime.  And on a key third and one, Arian Foster made all of our hearts stop:


...but the Vols came up with the football.  And the drive, the game, and the season continued.

The Vols continued to find ways to not make it easy on themselves, from Erik Ainge taking one of his literal handful of sacks on the season at the worst possible time, to a penalty that turned a 43 yard field goal attempt into a 48 yarder...which Daniel Lincoln then stepped up and buried, sending the game to overtime.

Then, we decided to play the most tense situation in all of sports:  a first possession field goal in college football overtime, meaning the game can end on any play of the second possession for either team, with a touchdown or a turnover.

And Carolina had us in that overtime.  Struggling to cover receivers all throughout the second half, on a third down play the Gamecocks had a man come open...

...but they missed.  And then they lined up to kick a routine field goal...and they missed again.

The game and the season had been a sickening roller coaster.  But in that one moment, the roller coaster came to a stop...and the Vols looked around and realized that, someway, somehow...they were on top of the Eastern Division.

Post-Game Reaction:

- Joel @ RTT:  Vols Take the Wheel, Nearly Drive Off a Cliff

- Will @ SESB:  Because Only God Knows What'll Happen Next

36. 1999:  #5 Tennessee 21 - #10 Alabama 7 (Tuscaloosa)

It's painful to say and it's both of our faults...but it's been ten years since the last Third Saturday in October that was nationally relevant for both teams at the same time.

The Vols had lost to Florida, but it was the Tide who made a name for themselves in 1999 by upsetting the Gators.  That game set the stage for this one, with both teams having lost only once.  This was also the first time the game was moved from Birmingham to T-Town.

Alabama was building Shaun Alexander for a Heisman campaign, and against an enormously talented Vol defense this would be his make or break afternoon.  Tennessee's defense hadn't allowed a rushing touchdown all season.

Alabama struck first, Andrew Zow hitting Alexander on a screen pass.  The Vols would answer late in the first half on a Tee Martin run, but Martin banged his knee on the play, and his status for the second half was questionable; people forget that Joey Matthews actually played a series in this one while Martin was being evaluated.

But the evaluation was good, and Martin proved it right away, connecting on a long bomb to put the Vols in front 14-7. 

The turning point in this game came late in the third quarter, with Alabama threatening.  Zow escaped presssure and had Alexander floating loose downfield, and Zow fired for him...and the ball glanced off #37's fingertips, dropping a sure touchdown.

Alabama wouldn't threaten again.

Martin put the game away with another touchdown run in the fourth quarter, and the defense continued to do the rest.  An Alabama offense that lit up Florida twice and did the same to many others that season was completely bottled up by the Vol defense.  This was Tennessee's fifth straight victory in the series, highlighting the fact that at this point in the rivalry, Tennessee could take the very best that Alabama could throw at them in the most hostile of environments, and still make victory look easy.

Those were the days.

What about you?

As always...your memories from these games?