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Top 10 Tennessee Comebacks since 1990

Big day for us here - it's the start of SEC Media Days, which we'll have coverage of when it begins this afternoon (Derek Dooley and the Vols are on tap just before noon on Thursday).  And tonight we'll have Tom Mattingly on our podcast at 9:00 PM EDT, who serves as The Vol Historian for the Knoxville News-Sentinel.  Tom wrote a story on the 20th anniversary of The Miracle at South Bend for our Volunteers Kickoff 2011 magazine, which you should be able to find on shelves all over the southeast this week.

The Miracle at South Bend has been considered the greatest comeback in Tennessee Football history since the day it happened.  Today we take a look at that game and nine others in the last two decades in an attempt to rank the greatest come from behind wins of recent Tennessee Football history.  We didn't use a set formula, but obviously not all comebacks are created equal:  the opponent and the situation tend to make one game matter more than another.  But we think you'll find this list is full of both familiar classics, and games you may have forgotten in the last twenty-two years.

10. 1997 SEC Championship Game - #3 Tennessee vs. #11 Auburn (Down 27-17 late 3Q - Won 30-29)

The comeback was less memorable than the events that dug the hole in the first place.  Making our first trip to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game and still alive for the National Championship, Auburn scored 20 straight points after the Vols scored on the opening drive.  When UT cut it to 20-17 early in the third quarter, Auburn responded with a touchdown and Tennessee turned the ball over.  The Tigers led 27-17 late in the third quarter, then blocked an extra point and returned it for two to lead 29-23 in the fourth.  Marcus Nash scored on a 73 yard catch and run to finally give the Vols the lead back, then Auburn finally turned the ball over and Jamal Lewis ran out the clock.  Tennessee survived a staggering six turnovers and a blocked PAT (read:  Georgia Dome) to win their first SEC Championship Game and get Peyton his ring.  (Sidenote:  this remains the best environment for a football game - or any sporting event - that I've ever been in:  two old rivals back together again after six years apart, both making our first appearance in Atlanta, and the building was as close to 50/50 in the stands as I've ever seen.  Unique, loud, meaningful, and eventful.)

9. 1996 - #6 Tennessee vs. #7 Alabama (Down 13-0 mid 3Q - Won 20-13)

This one makes the list because of the opponent and the narrative of the rivalry:  the Vols had finally gotten the best of Alabama the year before, but it was this game in Knoxville when the rivalry truly changed course.  Alabama had spent ten years getting the best of the Vols, and those final few losses (plus the tie in 1993) were especially painful because Tennessee kept coming so close.  On this night in Knoxville, the Vols beat Alabama at their own game.  A 6-0 game at halftime turned 13-0 when Manning was intercepted off a deflection.  But from there, Tennessee made every play:  Manning-to-Kent to finally get on the board, a Terry Fair interception, and Jay Graham's iconic 79 yard "we're playing for overtime...wait, nevermind" touchdown run in the final minutes gave the Vols the lead, and Bama was stopped on fourth down in the red zone to end it.

8. 1995 - #4 Tennessee at Kentucky (Down 31-16 mid 3Q - Won 34-31)

Kentucky's Billy Jack Haskins took what is still probably the worst beating I've ever seen an opposing QB take from a Tennessee defense, and still gave UK a chance to win.  This was one of those games when the Vols were at their very best, and you knew it was just a matter of time before they started rolling.  Despite the best efforts of Kentucky RB Moe Williams, Manning led the Vols for the game's final 18 points, keeping The Streak alive and keeping the Vols on course for the Citrus Bowl.

7. 2006 - #13 Tennessee at #10 Georgia (Down 24-7 late 2Q - Won 51-33)

The final score makes it seem like it doesn't belong, but if you recall, late in the second quarter with Georgia up 24-7 we were all having flashbacks to 2005 and were convinced that we still weren't any good.  That all changed in the game's final 35 minutes:  UT got the crucial just-before-halftime TD to feel like we were in it, then got a break right away with a batted ball INT to open the third quarter.  The comeback part was almost done by the start of the fourth quarter, with UGA's lead cut to 27-24 and the Vols knocking on the door.  Then UT unleashed an almost perfect fourth quarter:  touchdown, blocked punt touchdown, then the lone blemish of UGA running the kickoff back for a score...but that was followed by touchdown, fumble recovery, touchdown, interception.  This is probably the closest we've come to the other side of the 1995 Florida game.

6. 2007 - #19 Tennessee vs Vanderbilt (Down 24-9 early 4Q - Won 25-24)

The answer to the question, "What is the largest fourth quarter comeback by the Vols in Neyland Stadium history?"  You probably don't think of it that way for a couple reasons:  one, because the Vols scored a touchdown in the first minute of the fourth quarter to get back within one possession.  And two, because it's Vanderbilt...and this game was textbook Vanderbilt.  It was a third quarter roughing the kicker penalty that really started Tennessee's comeback.  The Vols then flipped the switch for 16 fourth quarter points, including another touchdown with seven minutes to go.  When the two point conversion was no good, no problem:  Daniel Lincoln will hit a field goal with two minutes left for the lead.  And when Vanderbilt runs the kickoff back 55 yards to the edge of field goal range, no worries:  they'll bounce the kick off the upright and lose.  Seriously, I was at this game and never once considered we might lose.  Because they're Vanderbilt, and that's what they do.  This win kept the Vols in front of the SEC East race, which they would win four overtimes later in Lexington the following week.

5. January 1, 1991 Sugar Bowl - #10 Tennessee vs Virginia (Down 16-0 mid 3Q - Won 23-22)

Another classic fourth quarter.  Virginia was ranked #1 in mid-October before QB Shawn Moore got hurt.  The Cavs lost three games after that, but Moore was back for the Sugar Bowl alongside RB Terry Kirby and WR Herman Moore.  The Vols trailed 16-0 at halftime and 16-3 late in the third quarter with Virginia driving for the knockout punch.  But Floyd Miley intercepted a pass at the nine yard line to turn the game around.  In the fourth quarter, Tennessee would score a touchdown, then Virginia would kick a field goal, then repeat.  Andy Kelly went 14 of 18 in the final period and led three touchdown drives, the final one ending with Tony Thompson going over the top in the final seconds to secure the Tennessee victory.

4. 2001 - #6 Tennessee at Kentucky (Down 21-0 mid 2Q - Won 38-35)

This one was a lot more dangerous than the other Kentucky comeback:  we didn't have Peyton Manning, and they did have Jared Lorenzen.  After UK exploded for a 21-0 lead, here again we saw the value of the just-before-halftime TD followed by the quick turnover in the third quarter.  Add in a Kelley Washington TD, and the Vols tied it up midway through the third quarter.  But Kentucky kept coming; Clausen and Lorenzen traded blows the rest of the way.  When UT had to settle for a field goal to make it 38-35 with under three minutes to play, Kentucky drove inside the UT 30 but fumbled, and Tennessee recovered to keep the streak alive, barely.

3. 1998 - #1 Tennessee vs #10 Arkansas (Down 21-3 late 2Q - Won 28-24)

This game (as well as the 2004 Florida game) gets remembered so strongly for what happened at the very end that everyone seems to forget everything that happened before that.  In this case, everything that happened before that was an undefeated Arkansas team completely outplaying the #1 Vols for a quarter and a half en route to a 21-3 lead (Anthony Lucas:  8 catches, 172 yards, 2 TDs).  His last TD came with less than four minutes to play in the second quarter, which is why it was so important for Tee Martin to lead the Vols downfield for a touchdown, again, just before halftime.  The second half served to setup the finish, as the Vols kept almost taking the lead:  down 24-17, UT settled for a field goal, then blocked an Arkansas field goal, then forced an Arkansas safety on a punt before turning the ball over on downs with less than two minutes to play.  You know the rest.

2. 2005 - #10 Tennessee at #4 LSU (Down 21-0 mid 3Q - Won 30-27 OT)

The Rally at Death Valley is on the books as the largest fourth quarter comeback in school history at 17 points (24-7).  The first half was the breakdown of Erik Ainge:  7 of 19 for 54 yards with an interception and a goalpost to the face.  That paved the way for Rick Clausen, who stared down the blitzes that ate Ainge alive and calmly completed 21 passes for 196 yards - nothing fancy, six yards per completion, but just like his brother, ice cold, no mistakes.  Meanwhile on the other sideline, the world was being introduced to Les Miles and JaMarcus Russell.  When UT scored to make it 24-14 with nine minutes to play, Russell helped out with some NFL foreshadowing:  a pass right into the hands of Jonathan Hefney, who ran it back inside the ten and set up another UT touchdown.  The Vols actually had a chance to win in regulation, but Clausen's deep pass toward field goal range was intercepted with 17 seconds to play...and I swear to you, there's video somewhere of Les Miles immediately trying to call timeout in a dead ball situation before being almost tackled by one of his assistants.  In overtime, LSU got three and then got a big dose of Gerald Riggs for the win.  Even in the midst of a terribly disappointing season, this one stands out.

1. 1991 - #13 Tennessee at #5 Notre Dame (Down 31-7 late 2Q - Won 35-34)

It wasn't just that we were down 31-7 late in the second quarter, it's that Notre Dame was in the red zone and about to make it worse.  You should read Tom's story in the annual for much greater detail, especially if you were too young for it.  I was ten years old, and watching it again twenty years later still makes me feel like a kid.  This was Notre Dame when they were good:  Lou Holtz, Rick Mirer, Jerome Bettis, and a Touchdown Jesus you could believe in.

The Vols stopped Notre Dame three and out on the first drive, then fumbled the punt.  Touchdown.  Dale Carter returned the ensuing kickoff to the Irish 30.  Two plays later, Andy Kelly threw a 70 yard pick six.  UT then punted and pinned Notre Dame at their own six yard line.  The Irish drove 94 yards for another touchdown.  All of this before the first quarter ended.

After UT scored to make it 21-7 (the first highlight you'll see below), the Irish got a field goal then recovered another Tennessee fumble.  Bettis made it 31-7.  Tennessee had 4th and 1 at their own 40 with less than two minutes to play in the half.  Andy Kelly was stuffed, and on the next play Notre Dame broke a run to the nine yard line.  So the Irish had 1st and Goal at the 9, up 31-7 late in the second quarter.

And then this happened.