The 2010 Tennessee Volunteers football season was the first year under the doomed Derek Dooley regime, and one game in particular that season foreshadowed the bad luck and poor coaching to come. At the time, however, Tennessee fans thought it was merely the result of poor officiating and a very bad break.
Little did they know it was a sign of dark times falling upon Tennessee's program.
But the game itself was, up until the final 20 seconds, a shocking match that saw an over-matched Tennessee squad hold their own against the 12th ranked and undefeated LSU Tigers in Baton Rouge. The reason the Vols had been able to go toe-to-toe with the 12th ranked Tigers was because of the timely play by their defense. Tennessee's defense would give up 434 yards on the day, but they were able to force 4 LSU turnovers that stalled a couple drives that looked like they were headed for points for the Tigers. LSU also shot themselves in the foot multiple times, committing 9 penalties on the day for 54 yards.
The beginning of the match looked like how many thought the whole game would play out, however, as LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson ripped off an 83-yard TD run on the game's opening offensive play. It appeared as though the rout was on.
The Vols, though, had other plans. Tennessee answered right before the end of the 1st quarter with a Tauren Poole TD run, and the Vols and Tigers remained knotted up at 7 at halftime. In fact, the game would stay tied at 7 until the beginning of the 4th quarter when LSU knocked in a 31-yard field goal to take a 10-7 lead. The ensuing Tennessee possession, however, saw the Vols drive 71 yards down the field and cap off the drive with a 3-yard Matt Sims rushing touchdown to gain a 14-10 lead with 11:34 remaining in the game.
Tennessee was able to force an LSU interception on the Tigers' next possession with 9:45 left, and the Vols were intent on running out the clock and going for the dagger if they could score another touchdown. But after a failed 4th-and-1 conversion at the LSU 31, Tennessee gave the ball back to the Tigers with 4:04 left.
The rest, as they say, is history.
The Tigers methodically made their way down the field to the Tennessee 2 when Jefferson took a direct snap to the right and was stuffed at the 1. The Tigers scrambled to the line without any timeouts and with the clock ticking down past 25 seconds remaining, and as the game clock ticked down to 16 seconds left, three LSU players ran onto the field as substitutes. The players were apparently mistaken, however, as the three Tigers being substituted ran off in confusion. In response, Tennessee substituted defensive personnel as well, shuffling off and bringing on players in a wild frenzy.
All of the substituting mayhem left 6 seconds left on the clock as Jefferson rushed to drop back into the shotgun, and he had only begun to get settled with a mere 2 seconds left when the center snapped the ball back to him. The ball ricocheted off Jefferson's right arm and went bouncing behind him almost 20 yards before he and a couple Vols pounced on it. The game clock had run out, and the Tennessee sideline erupted as the Vols had just pulled off a monumental upset.
Rocky Top blared through Tiger Stadium as Dooley and his team streamed across the field, celebrating the improbable victory. Suddenly, however, Dooley and his assistant coaches were ushering their players back to the sideline, and the head official was popping on his headset in order to review the play. The official turned on his mic shortly after and informed the crowd that there was a penalty for "illegal participation" against the Vols on the play, and despite the game clock reading "0:00," the Tigers would be granted another play.
The replay did, in fact, show that Tennessee had too many men on the field. As three players ran off the field, four Vols ran on, and as if that wasn't bad enough, one of the players running off decided to run back on, The Vols ended up with 13 men on the field before the snap.
This time, LSU wouldn't chance an errant snap, as Jefferson lined up right under center for the free play with no time on the clock. Jefferson would hand the ball off to running back Stevan Ridley, and Ridley would pound ahead for the 1-yard, game-winning score. Not even 3 minutes after Tennessee had won the game, the Vols had victory inconceivably snatched away and lost the game on what will go down as one of the most bizarre endings in Tennessee history. As ecstatic as Tennessee's sideline was mere moments before, they were just as solemn walking off the field after the true end of the game.
But what if the Vols had won the game?
What if, however, the Vols hadn't had 13 players on the field at the end of regulation? What if there was no personnel gaffe on Tennessee's part, and the botched LSU snap was the end of the game? Where would the Vols be now?
If Tennessee had won the 2010 game against No. 12 LSU, it would've given Dooley his first signature win as Tennessee's head coach only 5 games into his tenure. It would've improved the Vols to 3-2 and would've given Tennessee an entirely different outlook on the season from there on out. The next week saw a drained Tennessee team get demolished 41-14 by Georgia in Athens, but an emotional victory over a highly ranked team on the road would've done wonders for a young Tennessee team, meaning the Georgia game would likely have played out differently as well.
The larger implications for Tennessee's program are what are truly intriguing, however. The Vols made a bowl game in 2010 despite the heartbreaking loss to LSU, so the game didn't drastically alter the 2010 season itself in that regard. But a victory over the 12th ranked Tigers so early in Dooley's tenure might've secured him another year as Tennessee's head coach, and it just might've changed some coaching decisions in the future.
If the Vols had pulled out the victory and not blown it with a horrible personnel decision, who knows how Dooley would've been perceived? His poor coaching would've eventually caught up to him, sure, but the implications are still interesting to ponder. If the LSU game ended in victory, the Vols would've been in a much better mindset to face Georgia, potentially pulling out a win there as well. A 7-5 or 8-4 first season would've done wonders for Tennessee's recruiting and possibly for the mentality of Dooley's assistants as well. Maybe even for Dooley himself.
It might be best that all of that was avoided, however. Even in a best case scenario (if it can be called that) it's hard to see Dooley lasting more than 4 seasons as head coach, which would put Tennessee even further behind its rebuild than it is now. Winning the 2010 LSU game wouldn't suddenly make Dooley a good coach, but it might've bought him more time to flounder around at UT.
So as painful as the loss was at the time, maybe it's a good thing the Vols lost that game to LSU in 2010. Because another year of Dooley was not what the Tennessee program needed.