Things were rolling during the first month and a half of 2016. Thrilling victories, a top ten national ranking, and a game played on the largest stage in college football history had UT in the spotlight for the first time in years.
The Vols rolled into Athens to face off against rival Georgia and stay undefeated on the season. Historically, this rivalry is about as tight as you can get. The series record stood at 22-21-2 in favor of the Vols before this game began, with the last four contests being decided by seven points or less.
The game started off pretty slowly before Georgia scored the first touchdown of the game. Both teams punted twice and gained a total of 43 combined yards. A lot of that was credited to each team’s defense, as both units performed well during the stretch.
Sony Michel - the Vol killer - got things started with a 14-yard run to give the Bulldogs a 7-0 lead. The Vols became infamous for slow starts throughout the 2016 season and this game was no different.
Tennessee couldn’t respond as Alvin Kamara fumbled on the first play from scrimmage after Georgia’s touchdown.
UGA converted the turnover into a field goal and were up by double digits within minutes.
The Vols drove right down the field and it looked as if Jalen Hurd had an easy touchdown catch, but that was not the case. Hurd was drilled from behind after being caught off-guard by Deandre Baker and fumbled the ball.
Georgia easily recovered and the Vols lost out on a major scoring opportunity.
The Bulldogs were ready to make a statement and put the Vols away on the next drive. Georgia called eight straight runs and were successful on every single one to the tune of 65 yards. Tennessee was dominated up front and they were gassed.
To make things worse, UGA fumbled at their own goal line, but the Vols couldn’t capitalize. In fact Georgia’s own Jacob Eason recovered the ball in the end zone to stretch the lead, 17-0.
A familiar face sparked the Vols on the next drive. Josh Smith made a leaping, acrobatic 31-yard catch over a defender on the first play from scrimmage. Dobbs then converted a huge 3rd-and-15 which led to his insanely beautiful run on 3rd-and-4 that gave the Vols their first touchdown of the game.
The Vols went into the locker room down 17-7. Could Dobbs pull off another second-half comeback like he did the year before?
Dobbs came right out and led the second touchdown drive for the Vols on their first possession to bring them within three, 17-14. Hurd redeemed himself on a perfect throw from Dobbs for the 19-yard touchdown.
But Eason and co. weren’t going to be denied at home. He hit a streaking Issac Nauta with a perfectly-timed throw and watched the big tight end rumble - untouched - 50 yards into the end zone.
Tennessee was down by ten for the second time during the game.
Jauan Jennings came up huge a couple drives later, converting a 3rd-and-4 on a physical, difficult catch-and-run that set up Alvin Kamara’s touchdown catch at the beginning of the fourth quarter.
The Vols were down by three, 24-21, and back in business after stopping a 4th-and-2 at their own 25-yard line on Georgia’s next drive.
After a turnover and trading a few punts, the Vols needed to make a big play as time was running out. One of the biggest plays during the 2015 victory came from the special teams - could it happen again in 2016?
Sure enough, it did. Trevor Daniel boomed a 37-yard punt that pinned Georgia at their own 6. Just two plays later, Eason was sacked by Derek Barnett and Corey Vereen recovered the fumble in the end zone to give the Vols their first lead of the game, 28-24.
At this point, there was only about three minutes left in the game before Eason was intercepted on the next drive by Malik Foreman. It was a thing of beauty, a toe-tap on the sidelines that had to be reviewed in order to make sure it was the correct call.
Georgia was cooked. All Tennessee had to do was get one first down and the game would be over.
The Vols couldn’t do it and Georgia got the ball back with just over a minute left to play. Usually, you don’t worry about a freshman quarterback starting a drive at their own 19-yard line with a minute to go and just one timeout remaining.
But this is Tennessee we are talking about and they pretty much blew it in the usual fashion. Eason was a perfect 4/4 for 86 yards and the go-ahead touchdown. Georgia didn’t even need to use their timeout - the only reason they had to do so was to avoid a ten-second runoff due to a false start, which in hindsight, they should’ve taken the runoff! - that’s how bad the Vols’ defense performed.
Eason hit Riley Ridley on a beautiful 47-yard bomb to give Georgia the lead, 31-28 with just ten seconds left in the game. It was an absolute blow to Vols fans everywhere.
Tennessee needed a miracle and for once in recent history, divine intervention was received.
Evan Berry had a quick, efficient return to get the Vols into Bulldog territory and an offside call helped move the ball up five more yards to the 43-yard line.
The rest is history. Dobbs, the aeronautics major, launched a perfectly timed, arched, and placed ball into the end zone. Jennings was there, and used his physicality and former basketball skills to box out and make what would be one of the greatest catches in UT - and college - football history.
The Vols won, 34-31 and were 5-0 for the first time since 1998.
Damn, it was great to be a Tennessee Volunteer that day.
A quick aside...
This one isn’t as fun/uplifting as my wedding story, but I still feel as if it serves some significance in relation to this game.
A friend of mine who was a huge Vols fan committed suicide the Wednesday before this game. Unfortunately, he was from Maryland (we live in Nashville) and his family didn’t want his body to be buried around here nor did they want to hold any type of memorial, therefore we decided to hold something at my house since that’s where he was going to be that day, anyway.
Needless to say, we all felt like something special happened that day as Jauan came down with the ball. It was a bittersweet moment that will never be forgotten.
R.I.P Will, you are missed.