Last year, we spent six months in the offseason telling the stories of The 50 Best Games of the Fulmer Era. It was our fond farewell to our coach of 17 years, and a chance for all of us to relive moments and memories from our favorite wins.
But the story of Tennessee Football has both its ups and downs, and there's always been some backburner interest in going back and telling the stories of heartbreak as well. So with the NFL Draft behind us and the practice field empty until August, we'll spend the next five weeks taking a much more painful walk down memory lane.
A couple of qualifiers: this list will only contain 20 games - because we're not gluttons for punishment any more than we have to be - and will cover only the last 20 years, mainly because I'm 28 years old and that's as far back as I can remember with any clarity. And we're knocking out games 16-20 right away and 11-15 tomorrow, before we go to individual game posts for the Top 10 starting next week.
And remember: this list is about the most heartbreaking losses - not the most embarrassing, so while the Tiger High loss will be on the list, it won't be number one. Heartbreaking losses take into account what was at stake, rivalries and losing streaks, and the quality of both the Vols and the opponent at the time. And because of the painful nature of a couple of specific games, ties will also be included on this list.
And as always, half the fun of these features is sharing your own memories of these games in the comments. We carry each others burdens round these parts, so share and share alike. And don't worry - we've got lots of good vibes still coming this summer, between the Best Plays of 2009 tourney/countdown, and some other more positive historical/storytelling stuff...plus all the wins you can find on the Fulmer Games list, if you weren't around last summer or if you just need to be reminded that our hearts weren't always broken.
So here we go: our attempt to exorcise every demon we know of, so that none are left to chase Derek Dooley this fall. The 20 Most Heartbreaking Losses in the Last 20 Years:
20. 1994: #10 Alabama 17 - Tennessee 13 (Knoxville)
Tennessee hadn't beaten Alabama since 1985, and this was the final chapter of a decade of futility. Freshman Peyton Manning battled senior Jay Barker, and though the Vols had already lost three games when the Third Saturday in October rolled around in '94, this rivalry game was competitive throughout. Defense set the tone, as this marked the third straight year where neither team scored more than 17 points in this game. Manning led the Vols downfield on the game's final drive, and Tennessee had first and goal...but could not get in. A penalty pushed the Vols back, and on 4th and goal the freshman Manning faced a blitz, and tried to force one to Nilo Silvan in the corner of the end zone...never seeing a w-i-d-e open James Stewart to his right. The pass fell incomplete, and Alabama won...again.
19. 2005: Vanderbilt 28 - Tennessee 24 (Knoxville)
It feels like Vandy's only win in their last 27 tries against the Vols should be higher, but by this point in the 2005 season, we had gotten so used to losing that it took some of the sting away. The Vols were ranked #3 in the preseason AP poll, but were 4-5 coming into this one, having lost to Florida, Alabama, and South Carolina by a combined 13 points. And while Rick Clausen was trying to get it done for us, Jay Cutler was getting it done on the other sideline. On this day, Cutler went 27 of 39 for 315 yards and 3 TDs, and while the Vols got 223 yards rushing from freshman Arian Foster, it wasn't enough. Vandy led 21-7 late in the second quarter, but the Vols rallied and took the lead 24-21 with 8:25 to play. Vandy took the ball at their own 37 with 1:40 to play and no timeouts...and in four plays, went first down, first down, pass interference, touchdown. The Vols actually responded and drove to the Vanderbilt 11...but on fourth down, Clausen was picked off at the goal line, and the Dores had won.
I was actually in Nashville at a conference the day this game was played, and people there were so used to losing they had no idea how to celebrate or even comprehend that they'd beaten us. Since I didn't see it live, I've been pretending it didn't happen ever since.
18. 1997: #2 Florida 33 - #4 Tennessee 20 (Gainesville)
Peyton's last chance against the Gators became even more frustrating as the season went on, because the Vols didn't start Jamal Lewis at tailback until the following week. As a result, the Vols had no running game, and Manning was left to throw the ball 51 times. His numbers, as usual, were good: 353 yards and 3 TDs. But Manning was sacked five times, and threw two interceptions, including this one:
Doug Johnson wasn't Danny Wuerffel, but he did throw three touchdown passes that always helped keep Florida two scores ahead, and the Vols just couldn't catch up. The Gators won 33-20, taking their fifth straight win over the Vols.
17. 1990: #3 Auburn 26 - #5 Tennessee 26 (Auburn)
The only reason this one isn't higher on the list is because we didn't actually lose, but if you're looking for the answer to "what's the biggest 4th quarter lead the Vols have ever blown?", here it is. In a game with SEC and National Championship implications, Tennessee scored on the first play of the fourth quarter to take a 26-9 lead. From there, Auburn's freshman QB Stan White grew up in a hurry, shredding the Vol defense for three scoring drives. The first one produced a field goal that cut it to 26-12, but the next two put the knife in real slow: Auburn converted three fourth downs in the final quarter, including 4th and goal at the 13 to make it 26-19, and 4th and 10 at the 11 to tie the game. And no, John Chavis wasn't the defensive coordinator in 1990.
When Auburn coach Pat Dye decided he'd gotten all the breaks he was going to get and didn't go for two and the win with less than two minutes to play, the Vols almost made him pay for it: Tennessee drove downfield and set up Greg Burke for a 34 yard field goal from the middle of the field...and Burke just pushed it off to the left. The Vols tied Auburn 26-26; it was Tennessee's second tie in their first five games, also kissing their sisters with eventual National Champion Colorado in the season opener.
16. 1999: #4 Florida 23 - #2 Tennessee 21 (Gainesville)
My first and only trip to The Swamp came when I was most confident we were going to win: the Vols were defending National Champions, and now that we'd finally gotten Florida's monkey off our back, it was time to go on a little run of our own. An incredibly talented UT team went to Gainesville, and the world was introduced to Alex Brown.
You think he had a feel for the snap count?
Despite all that, Tennessee fought themselves out of a 23-7 hole in the second half: the Vols drove 99 yards for a score to make it 23-14, and the Vol defense made life tough for Doug Johnson, forcing four Gator turnovers. Tennessee scored again to make it 23-21, and you felt like even though we weren't playing our best football, we were right there. When Deon Grant scored an interception and the Vols got the ball near midfield in the final minutes, needing only a field goal to win, you felt great about our chances.
But Tennessee didn't get a first down, and on 4th and 3, the Vols elected to go with a toss sweep to Jamal Lewis, who didn't make it. Florida escaped with a two point win, the Vols' first loss since the 1997 season. It should be noted that the Tennessee-Florida games between 1998-2001 are as good as it gets: each team won twice, once home and once away, every game came down to the final drive or overtime, and the combined margin in those four games is Florida 99 - Tennessee 98.
We'll be back tomorrow with games 11-15...what memories do you have of these five games?