While the last decade wasn't particularly kind for this, 2010 is still a solid year for anniversaries: it's 15 years for the 1995 team that went 11-1 and finished #2 in the nation, and 25 years for the 1985 SEC Champions who stunned Miami 35-7 in the Sugar Bowl. The '85 "Sugar Vols" were celebrated five years ago with the release of their own DVD, players were brought back for pregame ceremonies, etc. Because of that, I doubt we'll get much celebration for these guys this fall.
This makes for an excellent opportunity to celebrate the 1990 team on its 20th anniversary. These Vols finished 8th in the country and won their second consecutive SEC Championship, taking this one outright after sharing the title with Auburn and Alabama in '89. It was also one of Tennessee's most talented teams, featuring a number of players who would go on to make a name for themselves in the NFL like Carl Pickens, Alvin Harper, Chuck Smith, and Dale Carter.
The team went 9-2-2 playing an insane schedule. The two ties were against eventual National Champion Colorado, and an Auburn team ranked #3 at the time. The nine wins included an epic 45-3 beatdown of #9 Florida in Steve Spurrier's first year, and a thrilling come from behind win in the Sugar Bowl against Virginia. And one of the losses was to #1 Notre Dame, a 34-29 heartbreaker that came down to the final drive.
It's the other loss from that season that's truly the only performance that team could hang their heads over. And of everything that's gone wrong on The Third Saturday in October, this one hurts the most.
2. 1990 - Alabama 9 - #3 Tennessee 6 (Knoxville)
The big win over Florida came the week before, moving the 4-0-2 Vols to #3 in the nation. Just two years earlier Tennessee had gone 5-6, and now found themselves knocking on the door for the National Championship in late October. Meanwhile, Alabama - the only team to beat the Vols in 1989, and winners of four straight in the series - started the year a stunning 0-3 when they lost to Southern Miss, Florida, and Georgia by a combined eight points. This was Gene Stallings' first year, and it couldn't have been pretty for him at this point. Bama beat Vanderbilt and SW Louisiana before coming to Knoxville. Tennessee's explosive offense and Bama's misfortune (including RB Siran Stacy lost for the year with a knee injury) led most to believe that it wasn't a matter of whether Tennessee would win, but by how much.
There's not a lot to say about this game, because as you can tell by the score, almost nothing happened. Tennessee fumbled the opening kickoff, instantly taking everyone in orange out of their fantasies of crimson bloodshed and back to the reality of "if it can go wrong, it will" against Alabama. Bama missed a field goal and the Vols made one to make it 3-0 early, and Bama would tie it just before halftime. The Vols' vaunted offense managed just 71 yards and three first downs in the first half.
Bama took the opening kickoff of the second half, ate up the clock and knocked home another field goal to make it 6-3, and that score held going to the fourth quarter. With ten minutes to play, Tennessee's defense forced a fumble, giving the Vols the ball in Bama territory. But once again, Tennessee couldn't move.
Johnny Majors sent on Greg Burke, who had been the goat in the tie at Auburn, missing a kick that would've won it at the buzzer. From 51 yards away, Burke split the uprights, and we were tied 6-6. And seemingly just as important, momentum finally swung back Tennessee's way.
The Vol defense was spectacular in this game. Alabama had no chance to move the football, and Tennessee almost forced a safety, getting Bama to punt from their own one yard line with three minutes to play, setting up a sure scoring opportunity. Tennessee started their drive at the Bama 35. In three plays, we gained two yards.
So with 1:35 to play, here came Burke again, this time from 50 yards away. He surely had all the confidence in the world after drilling that 51 yarder just a few minutes earlier. At 6-6 and with a defense that had given Bama absolutely nothing all day, we knew that, worst case scenario, Burke misses and we tie. No one wanted the tie, especially since we'd already had two of them in the first six games. But at least Bama's streak would be broken, and we'd technically still be undefeated. Plus, with #1 Notre Dame still on the schedule, whatever damage was done in the polls with a tie could instantly be repaired by beating the Irish.
And of course, best case scenario, we escape 9-6, and since it's Alabama, we enjoy every second of it.
But instead of those two outcomes, we went for option number three - the one nobody thought about beforehand because it was too unlikely...and the only one that allowed Alabama a chance to win.
This kick summed up Johnny Majors' experience against Alabama after 1985: if Alabama isn't good enough to find a way to win, we will find a way to lose. The ball was snapped from the Alabama 33 for Burke's 50 yard attempt. The kick was blocked with a sickening thud...and then it started bouncing. And then it kept bouncing. And kept bouncing. And by the time Burke slid on it, it had traveled 30 yards to the UT 37.
The crowd didn't just fall silent, it fell dead. Alabama came on and ran three times for six yards, sending Philip Doyle on for a 48 yarder with four seconds left. And Doyle, of course, put it right down the middle. Alabama 9 - Tennessee 6. The National Championship dreams were dead...and Alabama was still king of this rivalry.
Tennessee did go on to capture the SEC Championship, and the '90 season ended with a good taste in everyone's mouth. But by itself, this game is the worst of all my Third Saturday nightmares. We've never lost so much against a team with so little expected of it.