The most painful loss in the last twenty years - and I would argue in the history of Tennessee Football - marked the end of an era. From 1989-2001, Tennessee went 128-29-3 (.815), won four SEC Championships, played in twelve January 1 bowls, and won the 1998 National Championship. And on December 8, 2001, the Vols were one step away from playing for another.
Though the Vols wrote a nice epilogue to this era with the Citrus Bowl beatdown of Michigan, Tennessee's fall from grace had begun. From 2002-2009, Tennessee is 64-38 (.627), with a pair of division titles but no wins in Atlanta, and three January 1 bowls along with two losing seasons.
This game also changed the scope of the SEC: one week after Tennessee sent Steve Spurrier out with a loss in his final game in The Swamp, Nick Saban started Phillip Fulmer's long goodbye. The torch was passed from Florida and Tennessee, who owned the league and contended for National Championships in the mid-to-late-90s, in the name of parity. Saban and LSU got it started, Georgia followed up with its first division title the next year, LSU won a National Championship in 2003, Auburn went undefeated in 2004, and along we went.
Consider that in the first nine SEC Championship Games from 1992-2000, only four teams made multiple appearances (Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Tennessee) and only three teams won it. In the last nine SEC Championship Games, six teams have been to Atlanta more than once (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, LSU, Tennessee) and five teams have won it.
A week after Spurrier's SEC farewell, it was the definitive turning point for Phillip Fulmer, Nick Saban, and the league itself...and it's the most heartbreaking loss in Tennessee Football history.
1. 2001 - #21 LSU 31 - #2 Tennessee 20 (SEC Championship)
I hate this game for so many reasons, and at or near the top of the list is the way it took so much away from what we'd done just seven days before.
If you weren't following the Vols back then or were too young in 2001, it's hard to fully describe what beating Florida in Gainesville meant on December 1. We covered that game, which I still submit as the most well-played football game I've ever seen, in great detail last year - it came in at #6 in our countdown of The 50 Best Games of the Fulmer Era, and even now that feels like blasphemy.
The reason it's not higher is the game we're discussing today.
All the joy, all the release, all the insane breaks we needed from everyone else to make that game mean what it did, and all the hope we had for what was coming next...all tainted, forever. It's impossible for me to think about December 1 without, at least in the back of my mind, thinking about December 8. We should've been able to celebrate that win over Florida forever. Instead, we got one week.
Standing between us and a date with Miami for the National Championship was an LSU team we'd already beaten. Let me say this upfront: I am in no way saying that we would've beaten Miami and won the title if we won this game; that 2001 Miami team might be the best college football team of my lifetime. But we were good enough to entertain the idea.
We played LSU in late September, without Donte' Stallworth but with Kelley Washington, who set the school record with 11 catches for 256 yards in a 26-18 win. Our only loss was The Hobnailed Boot, which means we really believed we should've been undefeated, but after beating Florida it didn't matter that we weren't.
At SEC Fanfare in the hours before the game, a number of LSU fans are chanting "OVERRATED!" at us. It's still the dumbest unified chant I've ever heard from another fanbase, being that we'd beaten them already. Inside the Georgia Dome, orange outnumbers purple 10 to 1. This game and this night are going to belong to us.
And then, it got even better.
LSU's offense was formidable with QB Rohan Davey, RB LaBrandon Toefield, and WR Josh Reed. In the first quarter, Keyon Whiteside drilled Davey near the sideline, and his night was over soon after. Toefield went down with a knee injury, giving way to Domanick Davis. Matt Mauck, a complete unknown, came in for Davey. He scrambled in for an early touchdown from four yards out to give LSU a 7-0 lead...but then Tennessee came to life.
You'd think LSU would've learned its lesson about Kelley Washington. You'd be wrong: 11 for 256 in Knoxville gave way to 9 for 140 in Atlanta. From 31 yards away, Casey Clausen hit him in stride for the tying score. On the next drive, Clausen and Washington connected for 47 yards, setting up a Troy Fleming touchdown to make it 14-7 Vols.
And then Nick Saban had one of his momentary mental lapses; every now and then, this guy does something that defies both logic and the process, last seen via an onside kick in the National Championship game. On this night in Atlanta, the Tigers had 4th and 1 at their own 22 yard line...and Saban decided to go for it. When Tennessee stonewalled them, it seemed even more desperate...and it felt like this game was certainly over. Even though the drive went backwards, when Alex Walls banged home a 51 yard field goal, the day-long celebration continued: 17-7 Vols with 3:52 before halftime.
LSU got downfield and knocked home a field goal to make it 17-10 at halftime. Still...we were good. We were great. One of my friends comes running down the aisle during halftime with a rose in his mouth. We laughed it off.
The Tigers got another quick field goal to open the third quarter to make it 17-13. And then everything just slowed down. Tennessee's offense went stagnant; LSU's commitment to stopping the run worked, as Travis Stephens - one week after shredding Florida - was held to 37 yards on 14 carries (still enough to give him the single season school record).
Meanwhile, Matt Mauck could run but he couldn't throw; he would finish the night 5 of 15. But he kept scrambling away and keeping drives alive. Domanick Davis kept picking up tough yards. LSU got another field goal late in the third to make it 17-16...and we dropped our roses and went back to focusing on the task at hand. We were Tennessee, we were the better team, and our talent would prevail in the end.
But our talent dropped the ball.
As much as we like to put these painful losses on one player, this one was share and share alike. While the defense struggled to contain a backup quarterback and a backup running back, Tennessee's two best skill players gave the game away on offense.
Travis Stephens was first: he fumbled late in the third quarter, giving LSU all the momentum and a chance to take the lead. And LSU was done kicking field goals: on the second play of the fourth quarter, Mauck scrambled again and found the end zone 13 yards later. After the two point conversion to Josh Reed, the Tigers led 24-17.
The Vols responded, playing to the destiny we believed was ours. Casey Clausen's brilliance is forever lost: with LSU attacking Stephens, Clausen demonstrated why the 2001 offense was so dangerous with its ability to beat you any way you wanted: the sophomore went 27 of 43, 332 yards, no interceptions and two touchdowns. He led the Vols to first and goal at the 4 with eleven minutes to play. We were taking control.
But then, Randy Sanders elected to keep Clausen in the shotgun. Maybe he was convinced we couldn't run for four yards; LSU had stuffed it pretty well all night. But the shotgun didn't work either, and incomplete passes led to Fulmer settling for a field goal. 24-20 LSU, 9:55 to play.
Now here came the crowd, and here came the defense: finally, finally containing Mauck and completely shutting down LSU's offense with a critical stop. Tennessee got the ball back near midfield. This was it.
Clausen fired and hit Donte Stallworth over the middle. Stallworth turned upfield inside the LSU 35. We were moments away from retaking the lead that was rightfully ours.
And then, Stallworth fumbled.
For the first time all year, I think we went into panic mode. We didn't have time to do it against Georgia, and we didn't need to against anyone else. But the fact that we might lose suddenly entered everyone's mind; LSU was still 65 yards away with plenty of time left, but all of a sudden Matt Mauck could do no wrong.
Julian Battle had a pick...and dropped it. Rashad Baker got tangled with Josh Reed and was called for pass interference, extending the drive. And behind Mauck and Davis, LSU not only ran down the clock...but moved in for the kill.
We actually stopped them on third and goal at the 1, giving us enough hope for one more play. But then Davis tried again, and this time he found the right hole and got in. The touchdown gave LSU a 31-20 lead with 2:26 to go...and it was over.
I can't describe my emotions because there weren't any. I just remember being numb and in denial for a very, very long time. We had another National Championship in sight...and then it was gone.
This loss has gotten so much worse over time, because in 2001, we believed we'd be right back there the next year. So did everyone else: the Vols were ranked #4 in the 2002 preseason AP poll...and went 8-5. We haven't been close since.
There's so much more that I just don't have the heart for. It's the greatest accomplishment of The Curse of the Georgia Dome. And along with this game's taint on the Florida win, Fulmer's departure makes it worse, because again, this was the turn. His descent may have been slowed at times, but Tennessee started coming down the mountain on this night.
Standing on the other sideline that night was a 33 year old tight end coach and recruiting coordinator named Derek Dooley.
It's his job to get us back.