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20 Losses in 20 Years #7 - The Greatest Day in the History of the City of Memphis

(Note:  Semester's finally over and all my work for the Rocky Top Tennessee 2010 annual is now complete, so we're back to this series on a more regular schedule - appreciate your patience.)

Which opposing fanbase is the most frustrating to deal with?  Aside from the obvious choices, there's a special place in my heart for Memphis.

The Tiger High School football team on the campus of Memphis State University has only beaten Tennessee once in their proud history.  The Vols are 21-1 against the Tigers all-time, total annihilation.  In basketball, their sense of entitlement is astounding for a mid-major.  Losing John Calipari made them a little more tolerable, as they have found someone else to direct their little brother complex toward for the time being.  But during Calipari's tenure in Graceland, every conversation I had with a Memphis fan was an irrational one.

"You have football, we have basketball," they'd say.  They did such a good job confusing themselves with Kentucky that their coach decided he'd leave for the real thing.  Their elitist nature toward Tennessee Basketball is particularly humorous when you consider they trail the all-time series with us 13-8.  If you find yourself in a conversation with a Memphis basketball fan, just remember, you don't have to take it.

And you have to distinguish between Memphis fan and Memphis basketball fan.  There are some particularly confused individuals who think it's okay to cheer for Tiger High in basketball and the Vols in football.  Many of them are trying to quietly jump on Bruce Pearl's bandwagon now that Elvis has left for Lexington.

It's more personal for me because both of my parents are from Memphis, and I have lots of family that pulls for Memphis State.  Which means I've had lots of conversations that ended with me wanting to put my head through a wall.  I can't stand the little kid at the adult table.

All of that to say, the only thing more frustrating than trying to explain to them that they're not superior to us in basketball is listening to them talk about 1996.

7. 1996:  Memphis 21 - #6 Tennessee 17 (Memphis)

It's that one time.  We have blackjack, they have one.  But that one time is all they focus on.  No matter how many times the Vols beat them, they'll still go right back to talking about that one time.  I was in Memphis just before New Year's in 2000.  Sports story of the millenium for the entire city?  You guessed it.  I'm convinced The Commerical Appeal just puts the picture of fans tearing down the goal posts on its front page every now and again to boost morale in the city.

For us, it's not our most heartbreaking loss, but it is the biggest upset.  If you're too young to remember, imagine the Wyoming loss from 2008...with Peyton Manning at quarterback.  Tennessee had absolutely no business losing this game...

...and rounding out this tragedy is the fact that its signature play should've been called back.

Before we get to that part, we do have to give Memphis credit for slowing down an otherwise explosive Tennessee offense.  Peyton Manning was good in this game, but not great:  23 of 40 for 298 yards, but two costly interceptions.  The Vols failed to put together consistent drives, which led to a 7-7 deadlock that extended into the third quarter.  When Manning threw a touchdown pass to put the Vols ahead 14-7, most fans breathed a sigh of relief.

It lasted one play.

There are several names that live in infamy in Knoxville.  We've already discussed Danny Wuerffel, Terrence Cody, and Alex Brown...and there are several others that we'll discuss in detail in the final six games on our countdown.  But certainly deserving of a place on that list is Kevin Cobb.

After Manning's touchdown, Cobb fielded the kickoff at the 5 yard line.  At the 25, he was spun by a Vol defender and cartwheeled to the ground.  Two Tennessee players at the scene stopped.  Cobb kept going.

There was no whistle.  And 75 yards later, he had a touchdown.

If instant replay exists in 1996, this play never happens.  As you can see on the video highlights at the end, Cobb's elbow was clearly down on the play.  But alas, the return stood.

This merely tied the game, so as much as we want to blame the whole thing on that one (illegal) kick return, we can't.  And when the Vols couldn't find the end zone, settling for a field goal and a 17-14 fourth quarter lead, Memphis made enough plays in one final drive against John Chavis' defense to give themselves a chance.  And with 40 seconds to play at the four yard line, they made it happen on a Qadry Anderson pass to Chris Powers for the win.

Down came the goal posts, and into this "rivalry" came the one time. 

It's odd what you remember.  I remember being so incredibly angry over this, and then watching the first Tyson-Holyfield fight later that night with my friends, which was a great distraction until it ended.  The Vols went 10-2 in 1996, but it felt like such a let down because of the two losses - the 35-0 start that turned into the 35-29 loss to Florida combined with this one to make 1996 our most productive disappointment. 

This loss sent Tennessee back to the Citrus Bowl for the second consecutive year, instead of earning an at-large bid to the pre-BCS Bowl Alliance.  And "never have and never will" became "only once, and never again."


Does this erase the one time?  No.  Does it make me feel better?  Absolutely.