Change was in the air in 1992. The SEC had expanded from 10 teams to 12, adding Arkansas and South Carolina to the fold, and creating the East and West Divisional format and a championship game, the first conference to do so.
Before 92, Tennessee's schedule looked fairly different than it does now. The Vols still played Alabama on the Third Saturday in October, and still played Kentucky and Vanderbilt at the end of the season. But in the 10-team format, the Vols also played Auburn and Ole Miss every year; the Rebels were always played just before the UK/Vandy games at the end of the year, and Auburn was Tennessee's second biggest rival. The Vols only played Florida, Georgia, LSU and Mississippi State home-and-home every eight years.
When the division breakup was done, the Vols had to say goodbye to the Auburn rivalry, as well as Ole Miss. In their place were instant rivalries with Florida and Georgia; Tennessee fans today would consider these two games to be the biggest of the season behind Alabama, and rightfully so, but they're both rivalries born out of 1992 and have little history before that.
The same year, the Vols were headed for what everyone assumed would be a rebuilding project. In the three previous seasons, the Vols had gone 29-6-2 and won two SEC Championships. But the on-field architects of that run had all left: three year starter Andy Kelly would eventually move on to become the most successful quarterback in Arena Football history, and if you're making a list of the most talented players to wear the orange in the last two decades, both Carl Pickens and Dale Carter are in the top five, and both were now in the NFL.
So the reigns of the offense were handed to a young sophomore named Heath Shuler, the Vols were searching for a number one receiver to replace Pickens, and the defense too was very young.
Then, it got even more mixed up.
Head Coach Johnny Majors needed major heart surgery just before the beginning of the season, forcing him to his bedroom and promoting offensive coordinator Phillip Fulmer to the role of interim head coach. The assumption at the beginning of the season was that Majors would be out until mid-October, meaning the whole direction of the season fell on Fulmer's shoulders.
The Vols opened with a 38-3 win in Knoxville over Southwestern Louisiana, but then it got real: a trip between the hedges right away, to take on Georgia's most dangerous team of the 90s...
23. 1992: #24 Tennessee 34 - #14 Georgia 31 (Athens)
I turned eleven a few weeks after this game was played, but even as a kid you could tell as this game was unfolding that it was something special. I caught it on ESPN Classic a couple years ago and it's still saved on my TiVo...I would go as far as to say that this is the most exciting game the Vols played in the 90s - there are other games that are more memorable (which is why this is #23 on the list) for other reasons, but in terms of just what happened on the field...this one is awfully hard to top.
Georgia started four players at the skill positions who would play in the NFL: Eric Zeier at quarterback, Garrison Hearst at tailback, Andre Hastings at wide receiver, and Shannon Mitchell at tight end. The rivalry was instant and so was the importance of this game, but the Dawgs were a huge favorite playing at home with all that talent, and it seemed that there were just too many things working against Tennessee.
The opening kickoff set a tone: Georgia fumbled, and the Vols - in their white pants on the road for the first time in my lifetime - recovered. Tennessee would get only a field goal, Georgia would return the favor, the Vols would kick again, and it was 6-3 going to the second quarter.
Garrison Hearst put it in the end zone in the second to put the Dawgs ahead 10-6. In discussing our last game on this list, the 1995 game between these two teams, we talked about great running back performances against the Vols, and said that what Robert Edwards did in 1995 was the most impressive one.
What Hearst did on this day might be second. He would finish the season in New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist. He would finish this day with 161 yards...and his big runs were just beginning.
But breaking Shuler in, the Vols had plenty of talent in the backfield as well. James Stewart, Aaron Hayden and Mose Phillips were all experienced, but on this day the Vols found that extra dimension that Andy Kelly didn't possess: Shuler could run as well.
Fulmer and David Cutcliffe put together a masterful gameplan, mixing in some spread formations with a ton of power-I sets, playing to their strength. It allowed the Vols to grind out a scoring drive to put them back in front 13-10 just before the half, and would ultimately allow Shuler - who could run out of either set - to lead the team in rushing on the day.
But Georgia snatched away any hopes the Vols had of going into the locker room on top, completing an improbable 3rd and 23 bomb from 40 yards away with seconds left in the half, Zeier to Hastings, and the Dawgs went to the locker room up 17-13.
Many thought this would be the spark that allowed UGA's superior talent to pull away in the second half, but again Shuler led a gritty drive downfield and James Stewart put it in the end zone, and the Vols retook the lead 20-17. Then Georgia fumbled it away again - their fourth - and the Vols had their chance to make a statement.
On third and 8, Shuler found a seam and sprinted 40 yards downfield. A few plays later, he called his own number again on a QB draw, and the Vols were stunningly ahead 27-17 early in the 4th quarter.
Georgia was far from finished.
On the third play of the ensuing drive, Hearst took a simple counter play and turned it into a 60 yard touchdown run, breaking four tackles along the way. The Dawgs cut it to 27-24, stopped the Vols, and drove downfield again.
The best demonstration of Hearst's ability came on the next drive: Georgia had 3rd and 10 at the Tennessee 17 with six minutes to play. What do they do? Straight up the middle with Hearst, who then breaks to the outside and delivers a wicked stiff arm on the sideline en route to the end zone. Georgia back in front, 31-27.
Shuler moved Tennessee to the Georgia 30, but was sacked on second down back at the 40, and after an incomplete pass on third down, Tennessee had 4th and 14 with 2:15 to play.
But Shuler stayed calm, and the Vols spread the field and then ran the play that it seems like they always run in this situation: dragging the outside receiver all the way across the field at about 15 yards and into a hole in the zone. The receiver in this case was Ronald Davis, and Shuler hit him square for a 25 yard gain and a first down.
Two plays later, Shuler made one of the throws that always cost him in the NFL, but were always spectacular in college: an into triple-coverage "I'm Heath Shuler and I WILL make this throw" play to J.J. McClesky at the four yard line. Shuler took it in himself from there, and with fifty seconds remaining, Tennessee was back in front 34-31.
Georgia moved the ball from the 10 (after a penalty) to the 28 with under thirty to play, and then one of the greatest roller coaster plays in Vol history unfolded:
Zeier should've been sacked twice, but he got away from it and found Hastings upfield at the Georgia 45. Hastings then broke two tackles and got loose to the Tennessee 35. But he was hit from behind as he was going down, fumbled, and the Vols recovered at the 35 with seventeen seconds to play.
Two great teams traded punches all day long...and somehow, Fulmer and the Vols were left standing with a 34-31 victory. For Georgia: 624 yards of offense...and six turnovers.