Last time, we talked about the 2004 Florida game, the redemptive 30-28 win that I called the best individual football game I've ever seen in person.
There are five games ranked ahead of today's selection. To me, the top three on this list have always been in a class of their own, with a fourth game probably in that category as well simply because of the year it happened in. And Friday's selection at #5 only gets the nod for reasons that will become clear in looking back at today's game.
So having said all that, and again reminding you that this list is really about the most memorable and the most important wins of Fulmer's career...today's contest is the best football game I've ever seen, period.
I was fortunate enough to be present at Neyland Stadium in 2004 when the Vols beat the Gators. I wasn't as fortunate three years earlier...but even just watching it on television, I've never seen anything like this in terms of intensity, quality of play on both sides, individual performances, and importance in the moment. The five games ahead of this one are more important historically. But for just the sixty minutes the game was played in, there's no touching this one in Tennessee Football history. I have never before seen a Tennessee game so highly anticipated and built up so well, with tangible National Championship implications on the line and the entire nation watching...only to meet every insane expectation that was placed on it, and then surpass them all. To watch this game live was to not be able to breathe for about four hours - every play was that intense. It may not be the all-time most memorable or most important win of Phillip Fulmer's 17 year career...but it might be the best one.
But before Tennessee and Florida could make magic on December 1, 2001, a lot of things had to fall into place...
6. 2001: #4 Tennessee 34 - #2 Florida 32 (Gainesville)
(...uh, this might get a little lengthy...)
The Very Best a Rivalry Has to Offer
From 1995-2001, Tennessee and Florida shared not only the SEC, but the national spotlight. For seven consecutive years, the two teams met with both ranked in the Top 10 in each encounter. They finished second and third in the final polls at the end of the 1995 season. The Gators played in the National Championship Game that season and lost, but returned the following year and won it all. Then the Vols would repeat that pattern in 1997-98, playing in the Bowl Alliance title game and losing before winning it all in the BCS's first year.
Coming into 2001, Tennessee had narrowed the initial gap between the two schools with their National Championship and victory over the Gators in 98. That began a string of unbelievably great football games, with the Vols winning 20-17 in overtime in 1998, Florida getting revenge 23-21 the following year by stopping Jamal Lewis on 4th and 3, and then Jabar Gaffney's (in)famous catch/no-catch game in Knoxville in 2000 raising the bar for dramatic football even higher.
The two teams would clear it again in 2001, in the final year of their shared spotlight...but getting there wasn't easy.
The Road to December
As their usual Third Saturday in September date rolled around, the Vols' injury report included Donte' Stallworth's broken wrist and Outland Trophy winner John Henderson's sprained ankle. An elder statesman named Kelley Washington was complaining about not getting the ball enough, and Travis Stephens was saddled with 40+ carries in a sluggish win at Arkansas the week before that produced all of 13 points. Tennessee hadn't beaten Florida in Gainesville in 30 years, and there were few reasons to believe that 2001 would be any different.
And then on a Tuesday morning, everything changed.
The events of September 11 pushed everything back, including - after lengthy discussion - SEC Football. The games of September 15 were moved to December 1 at the end of the season, meaning for once, the Vols and Gators could figure out exactly what kind of football team they really had without letting the other dictate it to them.
The Vols got Kelley Washington the ball enough in an emotional win over LSU when play resumed, but then suffered one of the most bitter losses in program history in the 26-24 Hobnailed Boot game against Georgia. The next day the Vols were at 13th in the polls, and the next week Florida went down too, 23-20 to Auburn. Both teams had a ton of work to do, and would need an unusual amount of help, to get back in the national conversation.
The Vols did their part on the field, beating Alabama to get back in the Top 10, and rising to 7th after a tough win over South Carolina. Florida beat Georgia to get back in the Top 5 and take the Dawgs out of the SEC East race, setting the stage for the December 1 shodown and once again allowing the outcome of UT/UF to settle the division.
But if it was going to be for more than just the division, Florida needed help and the Vols needed a miracle.
Coming into the final weekend of November, the Gators were third but the Vols were still stuck back at seventh. Miami and Nebraska were both undefeated and appeared to be on a collision course for the title game. Dominoes would have to fall in a hurry.
The first one was the most dramatic. On Thanksgiving Weekend, #2 Nebraska traveled to Boulder to face #14 Colorado, a team they had dominated every year for almost a decade. Driving back from seeing family in Memphis during their Friday afternoon kickoff, I kept getting static on the radio, until finally I found a SportsCenter update on ESPN Radio and heard "Second quarter, Colorado 28 - Nebraska 0".
I almost wrecked.
The Buffs ultimately put a 62-36 beating on Nebraska that their program still hasn't recovered from. The door was open for Florida. Tennessee needed a little more help.
They got it the very next day. While Tennessee was shutting out Vanderbilt, unranked Oklahoma State went into Norman and escaped with a 16-13 win over #4 Oklahoma. The Vols jumped from 7th to 4th in the polls, 5th in the BCS. But with #2 Florida next on the radar, you knew that a win in The Swamp would vault the Vols over #4 Oregon easily...and we would be down to decimal points with #3 Texas.
December 1, 2001 is one of my favorite college football Saturdays of all time. #1 Miami would face #14 Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. The #2 Gators would face the #4 Vols, winner goes to Atlanta. Meanwhile, LSU and Auburn would square off with the same stakes. The Big 12 Championship Game went on as originally scheduled, with #3 Texas facing suddenly red-hot Colorado. And #5 Oregon met Oregon State in the Civil War. Every game with enormous expectations. A world of potential scenarios for the National Championship...and the Vols were right in the middle of it.
30 years of losing in The Swamp + Steve Spurrier's 8-2 record against Phillip Fulmer + Rex Grossman's Heisman candidacy = Florida is favored. You knew that much was a given. And these Gators were talented on both sides of the ball.
But if you're going to talk about Fulmer's most talented team, 2001 has to be in the conversation. Casey Clausen, Travis Stephens, Stallworth & The Future (when he was just The Present) & Jason Witten as targets, veteran offensive line...and the best defensive line in Tennessee football history, with John Henderson, Al Haynesworth and Will Overstreet. This was Clash of the Titans.
So yeah, you knew Florida would be favored. 18 points, though...now that was a little ridiculous.
There was no way a Tennessee team this talented should've been an 18 point dog to anybody. The national perception was clear: Tennessee was just another obstacle in the Gator attack. In Gainesville, they had overconfidence. In Knoxville, we had motivation.
I don't know who started it. I don't know if it was a direct quote from Fulmer. I just know that over the course of gameweek, it started appearing on billboards, marquees, and in conversation all over Knoxville: We Believe.
Though the Vols had narrowed the gap, there was still this sense of "ohnoohnodon'tscrewupohno" when Tennessee played Florida. But there was just something different about this week. We believed.
The injury report was different too: instead of Donte' Stallworth and John Henderson, Earnest Graham showed up with an injury, and would miss the contest. The Gators still had Jabar Gaffney and Reche Caldwell, and plenty of optimism that this night would turn out the same way the last thirty years had for them in The Swamp...where only Gators get out alive.
The Tone Setter
Here's the best stat I can give you to describe what a great football game this was: there are a total of three punts in it.
The first one came on the opening drive, when the Vols stopped the Gators three and out. That led to a methodical 14 play, 66 yard, 7:00 off the clock touchdown drive where you kept waiting for something bad to happen, and instead the Vols kept moving the chains. Clausen hit Troy Fleming from the two for the score, and the Vols had drawn first blood.
On Florida's second offensive possession, John Henderson got one of his big paws on a Grossman pass, which went high into the air and into the arms of Jabari Greer for the INT. A few plays later, Travis Stephens was in the end zone, and the Vols had a 14-0 lead in the game's first twelve minutes. 18 points were out the window - Tennessee had made their statement.
When What Usually Happens, Happens
When Florida beats Tennessee, they have a soul-crushing way of doing it that involves big plays and an avalanche of Tennessee mistakes, and not just answering UT scoring drives, but overwhelming them. So on this night, the Gators took Tennessee's very best opening blow...and then responded with something better.
Rex Grossman threw a bomb to Caldwell at the one yard line and snuck it in himself for Florida's first score. And then on Tennessee's very next offensive play, Jason Witten fumbled and the ball somehow stayed in bounds, with Todd Johnson scooping it up and returning it to the UT 16.
Here, the Vol defense turned in the first of many bend-but-don't-break moments, where failure on any one of them would've meant a different final outcome. From the 16, the Gators get only a field goal to make it 14-10.
But then Witten would do the breaking again, this time with a ball intended for him bouncing off his hands and into the gloves of a Gator defender for an interception. The ensuing sideline moment between Fulmer and Witten would become the most enduring image of Fulmer's career for our fearless leader.
But when Florida scored a touchdown on the very next play, suddenly the Gators were ahead 17-14 - remember that two touchdown "we're finally going to do it!" lead we had just moments ago? - proving that if it could go wrong, in Gainesville it would. You felt it even more when the Vols missed a field goal and Jeff Chandler hit his, making it 20-14 Florida at halftime.
I watched this game at my friend's apartment with about two dozen others on Summit Hill Drive, and I remember standing next to his pool table at halftime, thinking that we had thrown our very best punch at the Gators...and we were still down at the half. No way we can play any better in the second half...and already, our best wasn't enough.
Enter Travis Stephens
Randy Sanders got blamed for a lot of things, and not all of them were truly his fault. So let's say something nice about him, shall we? Randy Sanders did a better job playcalling against the Gators in each of his seven chances than David Cutcliffe did in all eight of his.
You don't try and outscore Florida. Cutcliffe tried it with Heath Shuler and lost, 41-34. He tried it repeatedly with Peyton Manning and lost 62-37, 35-29 and 33-20. He tried it later with Erik Ainge and lost 59-20. Quick points and shootouts just lead to more chances for Florida's offense to expose your defense, and a greater probability of your own offense making mistakes. Cutcliffe went 1-7 against Florida. Randy Sanders went 3-4.
Randy Sanders understood the fundamental truth of this rivalry: the team that runs the ball the best will win. And he understood it better than Cutcliffe. So a Tennessee team with Clausen, Stallworth, Washington and Witten and plenty of chances to hurt you or score quickly...instead turned the reigns over to Travis Stephens.
It took him two minutes to pay off on the investment. Stephens raced 35 yards to the end zone on the opening drive of the third quarter, putting the Vols back in front 21-20 and immediately restoring our belief. Florida was quick to respond, but again so was the Vol defense, forcing the Gators to settle for three and a 23-21 lead with 5:54 to play in the third.
On Casey Clausen's only poor throw of the night, the Gators picked him off on UT's next drive, and drove to the Tennessee 34, looking for the two possession lead that neither team had been able to achieve since the Vols led 14-0. Facing fourth down and the prospects of a 51 yard field goal, Spurrier elected to go for it...but Will Overstreet sacked Grossman, one of four Vol takedowns on the night.
The Vols went right back to the run as the game moved to the fourth quarter, with Stephens ripping off another big one before Jabari Davis finished the job. The Vols went for two and missed, but still led 27-23.
With every drive playing deeper into the "can you top this?" nature of the game, Florida again drove to Tennessee territory, where Grossman was hit on a play that should've been ruled a fumble but instead was called an incomplete pass. Still, the Vol defense again did not break, and Florida kicked a field goal to pull within one. 27-26 Vols, still more than ten minutes to play.
The biggest sequence of the night would unfold next.
Everyone expected Fulmer and the Vols to play conservative with the lead, and on third down the Gators looked to get it right back. But Clausen hit Bobby Graham for a huge first down. Graham turned in one of the all-time underrated performances on this night: with the Gators blanketing Stallworth, Washington and Witten and allowing Stephens to run wild, Graham broke out with 7 catches and 71 yards.
That first down set up the run.
Travis Stephens had already done enough on the night to garner praise and admiration. His finishing act turned him into a hero.
Breaking through the line of scrimmage and then shedding linebackers, Stephens picked up a first down but then looked to be stopped. That's when he embarrassed Guss Scott, simply powering through the attempted tackle with two hands and excellent balance, sending Scott to the turf and restarting his legs. It was one of those "oh...OH!" plays that simply would not be denied. 68 yards later Stephens was finally dragged down inside the 10, and Jabari Davis would again finish the job to put the Vols up 34-26. On the night, Travis Stephens ran for 226 yards, and did so with an authority that embodied the spirit of the entire team. There was no intimidation, no conservative effort...Tennessee believed, and then executed.
If you're scoring at home, that's 18 consecutive drives without a punt.
When the Vols sacked Grossman and forced Florida's second punt of the night, Tennessee had the lead and the ball in The Swamp in the fourth quarter. It was an odd feeling, and for once on this night the offense played like it didn't know what to do, going backward and giving it back to the Gators for Tennessee's only punt of the night.
So with one last chance, Rex Grossman put his team and his Heisman hopes on his shoulders, and marched them downfield. Florida went 67 yards in 10 plays, finishing with a score to Carlos Perez that made it 34-32 Vols. On the night, Grossman finished 33 of 51 for 362 yards, 3 TDs and 1 INT. Jabar Gaffney caught 7 passes for 101 yards to go with Reche Caldwell's 8 for 115, all this against a secondary with three future NFL players in it.
But Florida needed one more play - a two point conversion to tie with 1:10 on the clock.
The Vol defense had given up yards and points, but had turned the Gators away at several key intervals. Travis Stephens had done all he could. The defense could win it with one stop on the two point conversion.
Once again, the Vols got pressure on Grossman as he went to throw, and fired behind his intended target and out of the back of the end zone. There were no flags. The lead still held, 34-32. Tennessee's defense remained unbroken.
One final hope for Florida was the onside kick. Tennessee fans watching, most of whom had never seen the Vols win in Gainesville, refused to allow themselves to believe it was over until it was fully over. So when Florida's kick got exactly the kind of bounce you want on an onsides recovery, the Vols needed one more play...and tight end John Finlayson reached high into the air, and pulled her down safely.
And then Casey Clausen took a knee. And then he took another one. And we finally got to taste the fruit of what we had believed all week: the Vols came to Florida and walked out alive. 34-32 Tennessee. Florida goes home. The Vols are champions.
(Video highlights from The Phillip Fulmer Show the following morning)
In Knoxville, The Strip explodes.
There are things we do as Tennessee fans that others might find strange - like pile half a dozen guys in the back of a pickup truck and drive it up and down Cumberland Avenue waving a giant makeshift orange flag for no particular reason - but on this night, everything felt right. I even saw some police officers get in on that action. A surge of orange makes its way from Cumberland to Neyland - "Let's get the goalposts!" - and if you're thinking that setting couches on fire in the front yard is only something you've seen on television, you missed the real thing on this night out in front of at least one fraternity house. A throng of fans would meet the team back at Tom Black Track in the early AM hours Sunday morning. A campus united around its football team.
This was pure joy, and rightfully so: beating Florida, doing so in Gainesville, winning the East Division and doing it the way we did...it just doesn't get much better than this.
Miami would hold off Virginia Tech, but Chris Simms met the Colorado defense and didn't fare well, knocking Texas out of the race and removing any remaining doubt: the Vols would be #2 in the polls and the BCS the following day, their National Championship destiny earned in Gainesville and fully in their own hands.
And for Phillip Fulmer, who won it all just three years earlier, he put Tennessee on the edge of the Promised Land again...and the Vols would get no closer for the rest of his career.
The reason this game isn't higher on this list took place seven days later in Atlanta, where the Vols blew a 17-7 lead and then fumbled away their championship dreams against LSU, who beat them with the second team quarterback and second team tailback. It is the most heartbreaking loss in Tennessee Football history...in part because it took so much away from what happened on this night in Gainesville. So much joy turned into so much heartbreak in just seven days.
The game still carries some historical significance beyond the Eastern Division title, however. Steve Spurrier would win the Orange Bowl and then retire, in part because 10-2 wasn't good enough for Florida anymore. This meant the Vols would forever have the pleasure of beating Spurrier in his final game in The Swamp.
And by itself, the intensity and quality of this game separates it from any others that I've seen. It remains so rare to see a game with so much hype exceed every expectation, and to have both teams play so well. For Tennessee at the time, despite what happened next, it was one final chance at the big prize...and on this night, the Vols drained The Swamp and stood tall as one of college football's elite, one last time...