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Best Vol Team Tournament, First Round: 1985 vs 1996

One of UT's most beloved teams of all time takes on Peyton Manning's junior year as our first round continues...


Of all of our first round matchups, I am most curious about this one. If you're 35 and older, you know the 1985 Vols in all their glory. Even if you're slightly younger like me in your early 30s, you may have been too young to see or appreciate them, but you've heard the stories and seen the highlights of the Vols destroying Miami in the Sugar Bowl over and over and over again.

But if you're much younger than that, a season that took place 28 years ago may be lost on you. For my generation and above, I think the '85 team is more beloved than any Vol team other than 1998. There are still some who would choose the January 1, 1986 Sugar Bowl as their favorite game of all time, even more than anything that happened in '98. They are the three seed in this tournament behind the '98 Vols and the '67 Vols, who also claimed a share of the National Championship in one poll. But as part of their charm, they lack the sheer firepower of a team like their opponent today, Sports Illustrated's preseason pick at #1 with Peyton Manning at the helm. So I'm curious to see which way this goes as our first round continues...

1985: 9-1-2, SEC Champions, Final AP Rank #4

Johnny Majors came to Rocky Top as head coach in 1977, and it started like this: 4-7, 5-5-1, 7-5, 5-6, 8-4, 6-5-1, 9-3, 7-4-1. The Vols hadn't won the SEC since 1969, hadn't finished a season ranked since 1974, and hadn't even been in the poll since a one week stay in 1979 after beating Notre Dame in Knoxville. This is why those older than me are slower to speak of the present day as the worst of times.

The Vols lost 12 starters from a seven win team in 1984, putting expectations at zero the way the story has been told to me. The season opened with #10 UCLA coming to Knoxville, and the Vols managed a 26-26 tie. But the real stunner came the following week: Bo Jackson and #1 Auburn came to Knoxville, and left on the business end of a 38-20 beating. Bo Knows 80 yards. Sports Illustrated's cover got to know Vol quarterback Tony Robinson.

The Vols returned to the polls at #16, survived against Wake Forest 31-29 the following week, then lost in Gainesville to #7 Florida 17-10. But Tennessee recaptured the SEC lead with a thrilling 16-14 win over #15 Alabama in Birmingham, the last of four straight in the series for the Vols. Dale Jones - who was to 1985 what Al Wilson was to 1998 if you're unfamiliar - helped save the day with a spectacular batted ball interception. But the Vols would lose Tony Robinson for the season to a knee injury in the game, forcing backup Daryl Dickey - son of the former coach and now AD - to take control.

It was a rough start for Dickey - a 6-6 tie with Georgia Tech followed - but Tennessee then began to roll. The Vols finished their usual November run by beating Ole Miss, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt by a combined 106-14 to wrap up the conference title.

The Vols moved to #8 in the polls, but standing in the way in New Orleans was #2 Miami. This was The U at its most powerful - Miami lost to #5 Florida in the opener, but beat #3 Oklahoma, #10 Florida State, and was last seen destroying Notre Dame 58-7. The Canes had Vinny Testeverde, Michael Irvin, and Jimmy Johnson. Miami scored first to make it 7-0 and it looked like the Vols would have to submit to what everyone thought was coming anyway.

Then Tennessee scored the next 35 points.

The Vols made it 14-7 at halftime and then rolled in the third quarter, including a 60 yard Jeff Powell touchdown run to make it 28-7 and seal the deal. The 35-7 win was the best of all exclamation points, and made the '85 Vols one for the record books. McGee and Wilkerson went on to have successful NFL careers.

QB: Tony Robinson, Daryl Dickey

RB: Keith Davis, William Howard, Jeff Powell

WR: Tim McGee, Eric Swanson

OL: David Douglas, Harry Galbreath, Todd Kirk, John Bruhin, Bruce Wilkerson

DL: Robby Scott, Richard Brown, Mark Hovanic

LB: Bryan Kimbro, Dale Jones, Kelly Ziegler, Darrin Miller

DB: Tommy Sims, Terry Brown, Charles Davis, Chris White

1996: 10-2, Final AP Rank

Locked and loaded after an 11-1 campaign in 1995, the Vols were preseason #2 and hungry to prove they belonged. Tennessee beat UCLA 35-20 in newly expanded Neyland Stadium to setup the showdown with #4 Florida. The Vols felt like they let Florida get away the season before after losing a 30-14 lead in the eventual 62-37 beatdown. Never before has so much pregame enthusiasm been met with such immediate in-game disaster: the Gators built a 35-0 lead in the first two quarters. Peyton Manning threw four interceptions in all of 1995 and threw four interceptions in this game. The Vols did rally to score the next 29 points, but failed to recover an onside kick and fell 35-29.

One of this team's biggest weaknesses is the fact that it just didn't play many great teams: Georgia was down (29-17 Vols in Athens), making #7 Alabama the only other ranked foe the '96 Vols faced in the regular season. In a Neyland Stadium classic, Alabama led 13-0 midway through the third quarter before the Vols scored the game's final 20 points, capped off by Jay Graham's iconic run, giving Tennessee its first win over Bama in Neyland since 1984.

Then came the stunner: a loss at Memphis, the only win in the history of the series for the Tigers. The Vols finished the regular season 9-2 but headed back to Orlando to the Citrus Bowl, where they demolished #11 Northwestern 48-28. This team had all the firepower of its predecessor and successor, but suffered two brutal losses and simply had fewer positive opportunities to make a more memorable impact.

QB: Peyton Manning

RB: Jay Graham

WR: Joey Kent, Marcus Nash, Dustin Moore

OL: Trey Teague, Spencer Riley, Brent Gibson, Robert Poole, Chad Clifton

DL: Leonard Little, Bill Duff, Ron Green, Jonathan Brown

LB: Al Wilson, Tyrone Hines, Craig King

DB: Raymond Austin, Terry Fair, Tori Noel, Jason Parker