This post is sponsored by EA Sports NCAA Football 11
We conclude our weeklong look back with our favorite moments as Tennessee fans; on Monday we'll take a look forward, just in time for the dual release of the video game and our Rocky Top Tennessee 2010 annual on Tuesday.
Again, our emphasis is on favorite, not best: what are the moments for you that stand out as a Tennessee fan? There are countless individual plays, great games, and moments of fandom that serve as the highest points in our journey as Tennessee fans. We've spent the last two summers looking back at our greatest wins and our most heartbreaking losses, and there are countless memories in all of those games...
So which are your favorite?
Here are my Top 5, in chronological order:
1990 Florida - Genesis
On my ninth birthday, Steve Spurrier met the Vols for the very first time as Florida's coach. Divisional play wouldn't make Tennessee and Florida annual rivals until two years later; it was just by chance that the pre-expansion rotational schedule brought us together the two years earlier. Tennessee was ranked fifth, the Gators ninth.
A 7-3 UT lead at halftime was blown wide open when Dale Carter returned the second half kick for a touchdown. It was the first of 38 unanswered points the Vols scored to blow out the Gators, 45-3. Some will still point to this game as the reason Spurrier ran it up on the Vols any chance he got in the next ten years.
I'd been going to games every week for three years at this point, but I think this was the night I really fell in love with it: I was getting old enough to understand the gravity of a game like this one, and to appreciate what happened in it. The second half contains as much pure joy as any thirty minutes of football you'll find...and I was hooked.
(Note: this video is from one of the local affiliates' pre-Sugar Bowl special at the end of the '90 season, and is all kinds of early-90s awesome. This game was like a who's who of UT stars: Andy Kelly, Carl Pickens, Dale Carter, and Chuck Smith all played key roles. And you only see it for a second, but at 1:24, those are Tennessee fans doing the chomp...and that went on all night long.)
1996 Alabama - A taste of their own medicine
On my Dad's 44th birthday, I finally saw it with my own eyes. We weren't in Birmingham the year before, when Peyton Manning set us free from a decade of Crimson oppression, 41-14. But to me, it was this night, a year later in Knoxville, when the rivalry really turned around.
It remains the last great Third Saturday clash in Knoxville, with both teams in the top ten. Alabama's defense completely shut down Manning for two and a half quarters, with the Tide in front 6-0 at halftime. When a Manning pass was deflected and intercepted early in the third, Alabama went ahead 13-0.
But then Tennessee spent the last quarter and a half doing to Alabama what Alabama had done to us for all of the late 80s and early 90s: make every play, get every break, and somehow find a way to win.
Manning finally beat the blitz and found Joey Kent for a long catch and run late in the third, which still made it only 13-6 after we botched the PAT. After a pick six was called back for a block in the back on the return, Jay Graham found the end zone (check the video to see how generous the officials were feeling that night) to tie it at 13-13 in the fourth. Our defense bent to Dennis Riddle (196 yards) all night, but never broke; when we got the ball back 80 yards away in the final minutes, we were playing for overtime.
And then Jay Graham broke Alabama's hearts for the second year in a row, busting off one of the most beautiful runs I've ever seen. Bama somehow mounted one last drive to the red zone in the final minute, but we stopped them on fourth down...and for the first time in my life, I'd seen Tennessee beat Bama.
1998 Florida State - The clock strikes zero
I've been on two airplanes in my life: one when I was too young to remember it, and one to take us from Louisville, KY to Phoenix, AZ for the National Championship. The plane was supposed to take off at noon the day before the game. Instead, my Dad and I sat through an 11 hour delay that made me question whether or not we'd make the game (and my faith along the way). We finally arrived in our hotel in Tempe at 4 AM, gameday.
Inside Sun Devil Stadium, there were a couple of moments where I thought we were going to pull away and win easily, but Florida State kept hanging around. With nine minutes left, Tee hit Peerless for what turned out to be the game winner...but I refused to believe it until it was finished. And after a final nervous few minutes, the National Champion was clad in Big Orange.
I remember one of my Dad's fraternity brothers, in tears, grabbing me and telling me that he'd been waiting his whole life for this, and I was only 17 years old, and how much I should appreciate it. And I've always remembered that.
And if I live to be 100 and we don't ever win another one...I'll always have this night in Tempe. I can already die in peace, because I got to experience Tennessee winning the National Championship. Amen.
2003 Alabama - What the Third Saturday in October is all about
The '03 Third Saturday wasn't for championships - Alabama was struggling, and we were coming off tough losses to Auburn and Georgia. But it became one of the most legendary and epic performances of the rivalry: two teams playing for pride and simply to get the better of your rival. Games like this one are what Tennessee and Alabama are all about.
The first half may have been slow, but everything else made up for it: two separate goal line stands by the Tennessee defense, an epic final drive from Clausen to get it to overtime, and Tennessee doing what it does in multiple overtime games: find a way to keep playing, and then make a play to win. The most famous of those plays was Clausen's 4th and 19 conversion in the second overtime, which was one of several moments on both sides where defeat felt certain going in, and then momentum did a 180 and went to the other end of the spectrum on the very next play. Tennessee didn't win as much as survive, 51-43 in five overtimes.
This game is special for me because I went with my close friend Bobbitt, an Alabama diehard as long as I'd known him, which was since third grade. We worked together broadcasting Alcoa High School's football games that year, then made a midnight run to Alabama. He cared about the Tide just as much as I cared about the Vols, and it was his first ever trip to Tuscaloosa. We had tickets together in the upper deck, but knew our friendship wouldn't survive it, so I stayed with my friend Kory and his future wife Amy in the deck, and Bobbitt found a spot just above The Million Dollar Band where he could stand in the aisle, light up a cigarette and not be disturbed by the ushers.
We could see each other, and at the end of each overtime we'd kinda look at each other and just shrug. When it was over and the good guys had won, I found him and immediately gave him a hug - we've had the good fortune to never lose one of these multiple overtime affairs, but I'm sure it has to hurt...especially on the Third Saturday. Bobbitt passed away the next year, and I will always be thankful that we got to see this one together.
2004 Florida - 50 yards of hope
The 2001 Florida game really belongs on this list, but I still can't fully separate it from what happened in the Georgia Dome the next week. But I have no such problem with what happened three years later.
The '01 Florida game is the best football game I've ever seen: two teams playing for a shot at the National Championship in a game that lived up to every ounce of its billing and then some, with three total punts and thirty years of losing drained in The Swamp.
But the '04 Florida game is the best football game I've ever seen live, an amazing game played with a lot of young talent, and storylines ranging from Chris Leak to UT's freshmen quarterbacks, to the flat out domination by Tennessee's offensive line in this game. It remains, and probably will always remain, the highest attended game in Neyland Stadium history, the only one to crack the 109,000 barrier.
Erik Ainge's performance in this game deserves its own post, leading three 80+ yard scoring drives as a true freshman against the Gators, and then making the two completions to get Wilhoit close enough.
As I've mentioned, I sit in Z11, so both of Wilhoit's kicks were coming right at me. When he missed that extra point, my first thought was, "I wonder how long it's going to take me to get over this." Wouldn't that have been the worst possible way to lose a football game?
There wasn't enough time to fully process everything surrounding the second kick...just to hope. The only time I've ever used Tennessee Football in a sermon was to use this kick as an example of the relationship between how much you hope for something, and how great the payoff is when it comes true. I remember talking to that football while it was in the air, willing it along with the rest of us to get inside the upright. And when it did? Again, that's what these moments are all about: pure joy.
What are your favorite moments?