As Peyton Manning passed Brett Favre for the all-time record for NFL touchdown passes, I found myself thinking the same thing I always think when I watch Manning these days: how we're somehow going on 20+ years of memories for this guy now, and how lucky we are not just as Tennessee fans but football fans to get to watch him do what he does.
Since we are Tennessee fans, let's take another trip down memory lane and look back at Manning's 10 best passing performances with the Vols. Trying to pick the best passing performances is a bit like trying to pick the best pitching performances: once you reach a certain level, they're all good and you tend to lean toward personal bias as the deciding factor. Do you like strikeouts? Do you like touchdowns? In this case, I leaned heavily on our favorite stat of yards per attempt, going back through the box scores to pick out the best of Manning's best. It's not a strict YPA ranking; the first game you'll see in our countdown is actually Manning's second best YPA ever, but that's due in part to only throwing it 22 times that day. I also threw out the 1996 UCLA game, where Manning was only 16 of 28 (57.1%) while throwing for 288 yards (10.2 YPA). Peyton was good that day, but I believe you'll agree he was even better on the other ten.
This ranking values the passing performance over everything else, though we did not include games against cupcakes. Manning's most memorable win in a Tennessee uniform was without a doubt the 1995 Alabama game; his most important win was the 1997 SEC Championship Game. Both games make this list, but neither is number one.
As always, we invite your memories in the comment section below...here are our picks for Peyton Manning's 10 best passing performances at Tennessee:
10. 1996 Ole Miss (at Memphis): 18 of 22 (81.8%) 242 yards (11.0 YPA) 1 TD 0 INT - W 41-3
In the first game after a truly disappointing home loss to Florida, Manning made short work of his father's alma mater. On a Thursday night in Memphis, Manning needed just 22 attempts to throw for 242 yards as the Vols bounced back in a large way with a 41-3 win over the Rebels. His touchdown pass was the play he referenced in this story almost two decades later when he wanted to put it in the Broncos' offense.
9. 1995 at #18 Arkansas: 35 of 46 (76.0%) 384 yards (8.3 YPA) 4 TD 1 INT - W 49-31
The shape of things to come: Manning's 384 yards in early October 1995 were a then-personal best and at the time the fifth-highest total in school history. Peyton would go on to break his own personal best four other times; today his 384 yards are only 15th best in school history. Unless you were Danny Wuerffel, you didn't want to get into a shootout with Peyton Manning; when the Razorbacks kept putting up points, Manning and the Vols kept answering. To complete 76% of your passes on 46 attempts is a very good day.
8. 1997 vs #13 Georgia: 31 of 40 (77.5%) 343 yards (8.5 YPA) 4 TD 1 INT - W 38-13
And Peyton did this while Jamal Lewis ran for 232 yards, a ridiculous offensive effort against an undefeated Georgia squad that would go on to beat Florida and help the Vols get to Atlanta. Yet another game with 40+ attempts with 75+ completion percentage. Manning's final touchdown pass drew the ire of Georgia head coach Jim Donnan, who accused Phillip Fulmer of running up the score.
7. 1997 vs #11 Auburn (SEC Championship): 25 of 43 (58.1%) 373 yards (8.6 YPA) 4 TD 2 INT - W 30-29
We've spilled a lot of ink on this site over the year talking about this game, which remains the single best environment I've ever seen for a college football or any sporting event. With the Vols ranked third and still in the hunt for the National Championship, playing in the SEC Championship Game for the first time ever, Manning helped the Vols overcome six turnovers and a 27-17 third quarter deficit en route to a 30-29 win, giving Peyton his ring and silencing questions about his ability to win the big one.
6. 1996 at Georgia: 31 of 41 (75.6%) 371 yards (9.0 YPA) 2 TD 0 INT - W 29-17
The game featuring the famous failed QB sneak turned touchdown pass. His completion and attempt numbers were almost identical to the next year against the Dawgs, the team Manning tormented more than any other during his time as Tennessee's starting quarterback. The QB sneak play was just one of several Manning highlights as the Vols won their sixth straight in the series.
5. 1995 at #4 Florida: 23 of 36 (63.8%) 326 yards (9.0 YPA) 2 TD 0 INT - L 62-37
Manning's yardage numbers were always good in his three shots at the Gators, but he threw four interceptions in the 1996 game and was sacked five times in 1997. But there are no complaints about his performance in this game: Manning helped the Vols to a 30-14 second quarter lead before watching it all disappear in a flash flood of fumbles and Wuerffel touchdowns. This game ranks up there with Andy Kelly's 399 yards against #1 Notre Dame in 1990 as the best Vol passing performances in a loss.
4. 1995 vs Georgia: 26 of 38 (68.4%) 349 yards (9.1 YPA) 2 TD 1 INT - W 30-27
Manning's yards meant a whole lot more in this one, won by Jeff Hall's tie-breaking field goal at the buzzer one year before overtime entered the college football world. Beyond playing this well in a close game, this was Manning's sophomore coming out party; Brandon Stewart was gone and the show was all his, and he helped the Vols overcome a 24-20 Georgia lead late in the third quarter, then hit Jay Graham on a critical screen pass in the fourth quarter to help the Vols push back in front.
3. 1995 at #11 Alabama: 20 of 29 (68.9%) 301 yards (10.3 YPA) 3 TD 0 INT - W 41-14
The one we all like to go back to this time of year. Getting 80 yards on play number one is certainly good for one's YPA. Manning connected on two other touchdown passes and added a naked boot score just for good measure as the Vols erased ten years of frustration against the Crimson Tide in a jubilant 41-14 victory, a night that remains one of the greatest in the history of Tennessee Football.
2. 1996 vs #11 Northwestern (Citrus Bowl): 27 of 39 (69.2%) 408 yards (10.4 YPA) 2 TD 0 INT - W 48-28
In what we all thought would be Manning's final game in a Tennessee uniform, the Vol junior lit up the Northwestern defense for a 28-0 lead. When the Wildcats came storming back, he pushed the gas again en route to his first 400 yard performance which many believed solidified his position as the #1 pick in the 1996 NFL Draft. Instead, Manning returned to Knoxville for one more year.
1. 1997 at Kentucky: 25 of 35 (71.4%) 523 yards (14.9 YPA) 5 TD 0 INT - W 59-31
The duel with Tim Couch. In yards per attempt this is, by far, Manning's best performance, which is really saying something considering how good many of these other performances were. But here Peyton left no doubt about which quarterback was better and should have left no doubt about the Heisman Trophy; this performance was Manning's finest and set the school record for passing yards which stood until Tyler Bray met Troy. There have been a few other Tennessee passing performances with a better YPA on less than 20 passing attempts, but at 20+ only Tee Martin's 23 of 24 day (13.1 YPA) can even approach this; no other Vol QB has gone over 12 YPA against meaningful competition. Above all others, including Manning's own performances, this day against Kentucky stands out as the best we've ever seen.