clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Ten Weeks: The Ten Most Memorable Season Openers

New, comments
North Carolina State v Tennessee
Not your day, David Amerson.
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Fans of 128 schools wait eight months for thirteen weeks of football. And around half of them see their dreams dashed in college football’s opening weekend.

The sport’s fragile nature is part of what makes it great, but what makes it great can also make it very painful very quickly. On the other hand, around half of those fan bases get to be 1-0 and have their off-season optimism infused with real live football optimism. Marlin Lane, LaMarcus Coker, and several others have been the second coming of Chuck Webb after eight months of hype and one week of football.

That one week often comes with cupcakes, though they don’t slow the hype too much. But every so often you get a real live week one victory, either of the mid-major avoided-that-trap! variety, or the even more rare b-i-g win in week one.

Ten weeks from kickoff, here are our picks for Tennessee’s ten most memorable season openers from the last 30 years. For good, for bad, for unique reasons, these are the season openers that stand out to us.

10. 2015 Bowling Green

Do you like points and thunderstorms? This was the game for you: 1,161 yards, 89 points, 172 plays, two hours of delay when you still felt very uncomfortable about our ability to stop what turned out to be one of the best mid-major teams of the year. Alvin Kamara and the Vols eventually turned out the lights in Nashville with a 59-30 victory, but it took all 59 of those points to feel safe.

9. 1991 Louisville

ESPN’s first ever Thursday night telecast featured the #11 Vols on the road at Louisville, the launch of a Heisman campaign for Carl Pickens (a 75-yard touchdown catch and a 67-yard punt return score), and the debut of freshmen running backs James Stewart and Aaron Hayden, who each ran for 100+ yards in a 28-11 Tennessee victory. Louisville quarterback Jeff Brohm (current Western Kentucky coach) broke his leg in the second half. This was the first road game I ever went to - it was so cool to get to miss the next day at school as a fifth grader.

8. 2004 UNLV

The only dual debut bigger than Stewart and Hayden was Schaeffer and Ainge, who shared quarterback responsibilities in a 42-17 Sunday night beat down of UNLV. In what is still the biggest non-Florida crowd in Neyland Stadium history, Schaeffer was 7 of 10 for 123 yards and a score while Ainge went 10 of 17 for 118 and a pair of TDs. Schaeffer added 29 of Tennessee’s 272 yards on the ground. And man, those throwback jerseys.

7. 2012 NC State

The only good memory we’re allowed from a ridiculous 2012 offense. On a Friday night in the Georgia Dome, the Vols broke Atlanta’s curse as Tyler Bray went 27 of 41 for 333 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Justin Hunter returned from an ACL tear to catch nine passes for 73 yards, and our first glimpse of Cordarrelle Patterson was six catches for 93 yards and a looooooooooong end around score. Not a good night for David Amerson. I remember vividly walking out of the Georgia Dome thinking everything was going to be alright for Derek Dooley and the Vols.

6. 1990 Colorado

Down 31-17 late at the Pigskin Classic in Anaheim, Andy Kelly led the Vols downfield for a pair of scores with help from Carl Pickens and Chuck Webb to forge a 31-31 tie with the Buffaloes. Kelly’s 33 completions and 55 attempts were both school records, and Webb ran for 131 yards. The Vols went on to win the SEC; Colorado would win a share of the national championship.

5. 1994 UCLA

4. 2008 UCLA

3. 1985 UCLA

Three battles with the Bruins, three degrees of heartbreak. While Tennessee has had memorable success against UCLA (most notably 1989, 1996, and 1997), those all came in week two. The lesson: don’t schedule the Bruins in the opener. The ‘94 game featured the loss of Jerry Colquitt on the game’s first drive and the insertion of Todd Helton, Peyton Manning, and Brandon Stewart at quarterback in a game UCLA held on to win 25-23. In 2008 the Clawfense debuted with numbers I will remember forever: Arian Foster and Montario Hardesty got 162 yards on just 25 carries (6.48 per), but the Vols threw the ball 41 times with Jonathan Crompton and lost 27-24 in overtime, the beginning of the end for Phillip Fulmer. And in 1985 the Vols turned a 13-10 halftime lead into a 26-10 fourth quarter advantage, a sign of greatness to come from Tony Robinson and company, but the Bruins rallied for two late scores and two two-point conversions to leave Knoxville with a 26-26 tie.

2. 1998 Syracuse

Before all the assumptions of victory, before the defense was legendary, before we knew who Travis and Travis were, before anything else, the 1998 Vols had lost Peyton Manning, Leonard Little, and six other NFL draft picks including Marcus Nash and Terry Fair in the first round. It wasn’t supposed to be a rebuilding year, but it wasn’t supposed to be remembered either. And Tennessee and Syracuse played a wildly entertaining game in the Carrier Dome featuring Donovan McNabb tearing the eventually-legendary Vol defense to shreds. But behind Jamal Lewis, timely big plays from Tee Martin in his debut, a bang-bang pass interference call on fourth down and a last second field goal from Jeff Hall, the Vols got win one of thirteen.

1. 2006 California

A rare combination of Top 10 opponent, a chance for redemption after a depressing 5-6 season, and a huge payoff. One of the most enjoyable 2.5 quarters in Neyland Stadium history unfolded in unbelievable fashion as Erik Ainge and the Vol offense, back in the capable hands of David Cutcliffe, unloaded a 35-0 lead on the #9 Golden Bears. Ainge on the day: 11 of 18 for 291 yards, four touchdowns, and a completely absurd 16.2 yards per attempt. When you think of memorable season openers, none felt better than this.