It is, and probably always will be, the highest attended game in Neyland Stadium history. September 18, 2004. 109,061 people saw it, the only time that threshold has been reached in the SEC. Tennessee and Florida.
For the Vols, it was about new beginnings: Erik Ainge and Brent Schaeffer had inherited the reigns of the offense as true freshmen, and while they were certainly impressive in their debut against UNLV, that was UNLV, and this was the Gators.
These Gators faced a tipping point in 2004, in the third year of Ron Zook's leadership. After struggling through two average years and watching Georgia win the SEC East in '02-'03, the Gators needed to make a statement in the '04 season or it would be Zook's last.
Our list is counting down the "best games", but that's really somewhat misleading, as this list is ultimately geared more towards the most memorable over the quality of the football being played. Having said that, I think this is the best individual football game that's ever been played at Neyland Stadium, or at least that I've seen in my 27 years. Other games had more on the line, more dramatic comebacks or meant more at the time and have meant more ultimately, which is why this isn't the last Neyland Stadium game you'll see on our countdown. But if you wanted to take a total stranger, sit them down and say "Here, watch this, this is what great football is all about", if you're picking from UT home games I think you pick this one.
Both teams played well. Both teams had opportunities, some missed and some taken. And as is the case in college football, there can be only one winner. The Vols and Gators would go to the end with the final outcome in doubt on every single snap, and turn in one of the greatest combined football performances I've ever seen. This is what greatness at Neyland Stadium is all about.
7. 2004: #13 Tennessee 30 - #11 Florida 28 (Knoxville)
UT-UF usually doesn't need extra drama, but this one provided it with the presence of Florida QB Chris Leak. #12 was a sophomore making his first start in Neyland Stadium after playing limited snaps in the Gators' 24-10 loss to the Vols in 2003.
Many probably know the story of Leak turning on the Vols during his recruitment when his older brother CJ was pulled from starting duties after only one chance in 2002 - probably because the coaching staff was trying to save his life from his own desire to hold on to the ball for seven or eight seconds in the pocket - and when he decided to go in another direction, he did it publicly via his ESPN.com diary. That made Leak public enemy number one in Knoxville, and Leak knew it - coming onto the field for the first time during a TV timeout, Leak was literally jumping up and down in the huddle with sheer anticipation.
He didn't disappoint.
After the Vols fumbled it away on their opening drive, Leak met the roar with a six play, 34 yard drive where he accounted for 29 of them, including two runs for 18 yards and two completions, the second in the end zone to put the Gators ahead 7-0 just 3:45 into the game.
Tennessee took the touchback and then put together a classic Phillip Fulmer drive: 11 consecutive runs covering all 80 yards, and everyone got involved: four straight carries from Cedric Houston, followed by four from Gerald Riggs with two Brent Schaeffer bootlegs thrown in, followed by Jabari "Six Career Touchdowns Against The Gators" Davis from the one. Tennessee's offensive line had thrown down the gauntlet, and would spend the rest of the game backing up the challenge.
Leak's emotions perhaps got the best of him on the next drive, as he was intercepted by Jason Allen at the UT 20 on his only real mistake of the night. Erik Ainge saw his first action of the night and proceeded to match Schaeffer yard for yard: another 80 yard scoring drive as the game moved to the second quarter. Ainge opened the drive with a completion to Chris Hannon for 13 yards - Hannon will finish the night with 8 catches for 89 yards.
After more offensive line dominance running the football, Ainge closed the drive at the Florida 16. I went to this game with a friend of mine who was a huge Alabama fan watching from a neutral perspective, and on the previous play he said "You know, they're giving you the tight end over the middle." I said "I don't think you understand. We're Tennessee. We don't throw to the tight end."
So on cue, the Vols drag TE Justin Reed over the middle, and Ainge hits him for 16 and the go-ahead score.
When the Gators bobbled the ensuing kickoff and were forced to start at their own three yard line, Neyland Stadium was deafening and I was certain it was going to swallow Chris Leak whole. Instead, Leak led the Gators on a 97 yard touchdown drive...and shut everyone up.
Momentum continued to swing hard, as Ainge was intercepted at his own 27, and the Gators scored again to turn what was 14-7 Vols with Florida at their own three yard line to 21-14 Gators at the half.
A defense that had been damaged on the final two Florida drives of the first half came up huge right away in the second, sacking Chris Leak and then forcing a holding penalty on the very next play to kill the drive. With Schaeffer back under center, the Vols drove to the Florida 17, but the young QB fumbled it away from there. Leak then went back to torching the Vol defense, moving from the UF 23 to the UT one yard line.
But from there, the Vols made a game-saving stand, forcing the Gators backwards on play calls that probably helped cost Ron Zook his job: the Gators elected to pass from first and goal at the one three straight times, and ended with sack, incompletion, incompletion. Still Matt Leach had just 21 yards between him and a two possession Florida lead...but he shanked the kick, and Tennessee still trailed by only a touchdown.
From the four yard line, Erik Ainge took command of the rest of the 2004 season.
Moving to the fourth quarter, the young freshman led the Vols 96 yards in 14 plays. Fulmer and Randy Sanders were at their finest here as well: first, the Vols had 4th and 1 at their own 29 and Fulmer gave Ainge the green light, who snuck forward to move the chains. Facing 3rd and 6 just four yards later, Ainge hit Derrick Tinsley for just enough for another first down.
The real thing of beauty on this drive was the touchdown pass, as Ainge fired a highpoint ball for the pylon, a Gator defender missed by inches and Bret Smith pulled it down at its peak while spinning into the end zone. As recently as last year they still showed this catch as part of the ESPN College GameDay opening. At this point, Erik Ainge is going to win four Heismans and we're all tied up at 21-21. Still all of 13:00 to play.
The Vols stopped Florida three and out, and the noise increased. Tennessee had 2nd and 1 at their own 41 on the next drive, but would get no closer and punted Florida back to their own 10. From the 20 three plays later, the crowd was still at a fever pitch...and then one play appeared to let all the air out of the balloon.
Chris Leak fired deep for Chad Jackson, and the pass bounced off the fingertips of Vol DB Brandon Johnson...and into Jackson's hands, who then raced all of 80 yards for a dramatic go-ahead score. This had literally become a game of inches, and by the length of Johnson's fingertips Florida had found momentum and the lead back on their side. 28-21 Florida, 7:42 to play.
In hindsight, one could still make the argument that this is Erik Ainge's finest hour, even if it was his second career game.
Already on the books were drives touchdown drives of 80 and 96 yards. What was 80 more? No one told Ainge he should've been nervous...and here come the Vols.
3rd and 9 at the UT 34? Ainge to Hannon for 14. 4th and 6 at the UF 47? Ainge to Tony Brown for 32. 3rd and 8 at the UF 13? Ainge to Jayson Swain for six.
What happened next swallowed everything else up, but let's remember in hindsight that a freshman quarterback making his second career appearance, in the highest attended game in Neyland Stadium history, led scoring drives of 80, 80, and 96 yards, and with the game on the line converted two third downs and one fourth down to keep 'er going. On this night, the world was his.
There was, of course, only the simple matter of the extra point keeping the Vols from tying the game at 28-28 with 3:25 to play. And then James Wilhoit went and complicated it.
I can't remember, before this, the last time a Tennessee kicker just flat out missed an extra point. Some have been blocked, there have been bad snaps, there have been missed kicks from beyond the three yard line due to penalties. But this was just a good old fashioned, right down the middle extra point...and James Wilhoit decided it was no longer Erik Ainge's night, it was his.
Wilhoit spins the kick just off to the right, aiming at the goalposts right in front of where I'm sitting. And the first thought that runs through my head is, "I wonder how long it's going to take me to get over this?"
I mean really, can you imagine a worse possible way to lose a game? A missed extra point in the final minutes that leaves you still trailing by one against your most important rival in the most-watched game in SEC history?
While we're trying to pick up the pieces of our shattered hope, the Tennesee defense does the same. The Gators fail to convert the necessary first downs to run out the clock, and then a key moment: Dallas Baker is hit with a "second guy gets caught" 15 yard personal foul penalty on third down, and the referees stopped the clock, giving the Vols a needed extra 25 seconds. After the punt, the Vols have 1st and 10 at their own 39, 43 seconds left.
On a night when the young freshman had already more than delivered, the Vols needed two more completions from Erik Ainge. Two completions to give James Wilhoit a chance at redemption.
After an incompletion, Ainge found his first one to Hannon, 21 yards to get close. Now at the Gator 40, the Vols needed one more gain. And on second down, Ainge hit Hannon again, 7 more yards to the Florida 33. Tennessee called timeout with :13 to play, 50 yards from the uprights and James Wilhoit with his destiny back in his own hands.
There are sixty seconds and probably a few commercials before it will finally be decided, allowing both sides to survey the moment. Chris Leak walked into the hostile of hostiles and finished 22 of 31, 286 yards, 3 touchdowns and an interception. And though I wouldn't have said so at the time...you have to tip your hat to that kid.
But across the sidelines stood Erik Ainge: 16 of 24, 192 yards, 3 TDs and 1 INT in his second career appearance. Backed by the offensive line, the Vols also ran for 171 yards. On the night, the Gators piled up 421 yards of total offense, the Vols 403. A superb effort from both sides.
But there has to be a winner and there has to be a loser...and so on steps James Wilhoit, 50 yards away from being the most hated or the most loved man in the greater Knoxville area.
A little kid in Sunday School once asked me what heaven sounds like. I think it sounds something like this.
My Alabama friend next to me weighed all of about 130 on his very best day. When that ball got inside the uprights, I almost broke him in half.
These are the moments that live forever, and if you were there that night you'll never forget it. The story is so good in the last three minutes that I once preached an entire sermon around it. The game is so good for all sixty minutes that I believe it to be the best I've ever seen in person. And the night stands of current importance, as the Gators have won every meeting since...giving the Vols an opportunity every September to make another moment in the growing lore of this rivalry. For now, this stands as our last good one...but even five years later, it still brings the best of what Neyland Stadium has to offer back to life.