At long last, opening kickoff for the 2022 season is just a mere two weeks away, and though the Vols just missed out on the AP preseason top 25, there is palpable hype surrounding this year’s team.
Setting the tone, to many, is a very important thing. For college football, week one is either powerhouses beating up on small schools so the Akron’s of the world can make a buck, or it’s high powered matchups where the winners set their course for the National Championship while the losers struggle to climb their way back.
For Tennessee, the last 22 season openers have proven that nothing of logic applies to this school, but you knew that already. Before we take a look at how the Vols have fared in their season openers since 2000, let’s take a look at some fun numbers, shall we?
Tennessee is 18-4 in season openers.
The Vols are 2-1 in ranked matchups to open a season.
Tennessee is 5-3 in season openers against “power five” conference teams.
They have been ranked in the preseason top-25 13 times, but only three times since 2008.
Now let’s get to part one: the end of the Phillip Fulmer era.
2000: (12) Tennessee def. (22) Southern Miss 19-16
A ranked matchup in front of 108,000 fans at Neyland Stadium saw the Vols eek out a win that looked like a potential blowout for three quarters. The Vols led 19-3 heading to the fourth quarter thanks to stifling defense and Travis Henry running all over Southern Miss. However, behind a pair of first year QBs in Joey Mathews and AJ Suggs, the offense hit a wall in the fourth, and a pair of long drives brought the Eagles within three, but they ultimately fell short, giving the Vols a strong win to start the year. Cedrick Wilson and Donte’ Stallworth each were on the receiving end of touchdown passes.
The very next week, controversy struck.
This terrible call went the way of the Gators, and Tennessee would drop two of their next three games following it. That much is especially heartbreaking because the Vols found their solution to a very apparent QB problem in Casey Clausen following their cold spell, winning their final six games before falling to Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl.
2001: (8) Tennessee def. Syracuse 33-9
Despite committing three turnovers, the Vols defense held Syracuse to 190 total yards, handily beating the Orange, who were still in the Big East at the time. Tennessee’s offense did their damage on the ground behind a strong rushing effort from Travis Stephens and a pair of touchdowns from Corey Larkins.
In this season, Tennessee would avenge their “loss” against Florida, 34-32. What’s normally the Third Saturday of September was moved to December 1 due to the September 11th attacks, and it became a top-5 matchup in the final week with the winner advancing to the SEC Championship game. The Vols upset Florida in the Swamp, but a crushing loss to LSU the following week kept Tennessee out of the BCS National Championship game. They completed a great season with a dominant win over Michigan in the Citrus Bowl, 45-17, but it would be the closest Fulmer or Tennessee ever got to a National Championship again as of now.
2002: (5) Tennessee def. Wyoming 47-7
Tennessee dominated a lowly Wyoming squad in the 2002 opener, forcing five turnovers and totaling 467 yards in a 47-7 rout. The Vols intercepted Wyoming quarterback Casey Bramlet three times and suffocated him throughout.
Highlights were few and far between for this Vols team, however. Riding high off a stellar season in 2001, the Vols were ranked fifth in the AP Preseason Poll, but the losses of a pair of top 15 picks in the NFL Draft, John Henderson and Albert Haynesworth, proved to be costly along the defensive front. Though the defense gave up fewer total points 2002 than 2001, they surrendered over 600 more yards on the ground, and with them consistently falling behind early in big games, they struggled to fight their way back. Offensively, they lost Donte’ Stallworth, and Kelley Washington found himself sidelined with injuries all season long, and the struggles to throw the ball were prevalent from day one.
Tennessee matched up with rival tenth ranked Florida in week three and what developed that afternoon at Neyland Stadium set the tone for the rest of Tennessee’s season. After a scoreless first quarter, Rex Grossman torched the Vols in the second, throwing a pair of touchdowns in what would be a 24-0 halftime lead and eventually a 30-13 blowout.
Tennessee had four ranked matchups in 2002, three of which were at home. They lost all four by a combined score of 108 to 43, and only the Georgia game was within reach. Fittingly enough, the Vols would get soundly defeated in the Peach Bowl by Maryland, 30-3.
2003: (12) Tennessee def. Fresno State 24-6
2003 was the first of back-to-back 10 win seasons for Fulmer, and they got out of the gate hot this season. Holding Fresno State to 117 total yards and -1 yards rushing, they stymied a Fresno State team that would have a pair of thousand yard rushers by season’s end.
Casey Clausen threw a pair of touchdowns in what would be his swan song as quarterback. Funny enough, his two interceptions would be the game’s only turnovers, and a pick-six would result in Fresno State’s only points. The Vols’ defense forced 10 three-and-outs.
The Vols got off to a torrid start, winning their first four games including an impressive 24-10 win over 17th ranked Florida in Gainesville. Tennessee’s BCS Championship preventing slip up came in weeks five and six when they dropped consecutive games at unranked Auburn and at home against eighth ranked Georgia. Carnell ‘Cadillac’ Williams scored once while putting up 201 total yards, 185 of which were on the ground, and Ronnie Brown added another 65 yards and another TD as Auburn ran all over the Vols in an upset.
Tennessee gathered themselves and rattled off six straight wins to end the regular season, including an upset win at sixth ranked Miami, 10-6, avenging their loss to The U the season prior.
Once again, the Vols ended an overall good season on a sour note, losing 27-14 to an unranked Clemson team in the Peach Bowl.
2004: (14) Tennessee def. UNLV 42-17
2004 presented a big offensive change for the Vols. With Casey Clausen no longer under center, the Vols search for a new QB began. To the surprise of, well, everyone, Fulmer went with freshmen Brent Schaeffer and Erik Ainge over the more experienced upperclassmen, CJ Leak and Rick Clausen. Both Schaeffer and Ainge played well against UNLV, combining for a trio of passing TDs in a great overall performance by the offense.
Following the UNLV game came one of the most famous games in Tennessee history. Florida was reeling in year three with Ron Zook, and the Vols were riding with freshman quarterback Erik Ainge. It was a collision course. Either Zook takes the rubber match or Tennessee sends him packing for good.
It was a top 15 showdown in front 109,061 fans in what is still the largest crowd in Neyland Stadium history, and it will forever be remembered for James Wilhoit. It was a back and forth scoring affair all game long, and Tennessee put together a beautiful 11-play, 80-yard touchdown drive with 3:25 left, bringing them an extra point away from tying the game.
Florida quarterback Chris Leak was public enemy number one coming into this game in Knoxville, but James Wilhoit, for three minutes of game time, ripped that label away. Wilhoit, having made 50 consecutive PATs coming into the game, missed the point after attempt, leaving the Vols down one.
Tennessee forced a punt on Florida’s ensuing drive, and a poorly timed unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Florida wideout Dallas Baker backed the Gators up 15 yards, punting within their 10 yard line. Remember, kids, the second guy always gets caught. That margin in field position made all the difference for the Vols and for James Wilhoit, as he would nail a game winning 50 yarder, sealing perhaps the greatest game ever played in Neyland Stadium.
Looking back, this night should have been all about Erik Ainge. He delivered at every step, matching a Herculean Chris Leak performance when it mattered most in just his second career game, mind you, and then went above and beyond to give his kicker a shot at redemption and immortality. It would serve as his magnum opus which serves both as a reminder of how great he was in this game and ominous foreshadowing surrounding the coming years, especially against Florida.
This team’s only two losses came at the hands of Auburn and Notre Dame, ironically both home games. The injury bug bit the Vols at the worst possible time with Erik Ainge suffering a shoulder injury against Notre Dame near halftime, and with Brent Schaeffer already on the shelf, that left Rick Clausen who promptly pick six’d the game away. Tennessee fought like hell but would again fall short in the SEC Championship game against Auburn who would finish off their perfect 13-0 season. Tennessee was, however, able to get off their bowl game mini losing streak, defeating Texas A&M 38-7 in the Cotton Bowl. 2004 remains the only season that Tennessee beat Florida, Georgia, and Alabama.
2005: (3) Tennessee def. UAB 17-10
If ever a season opener ever set the tone for the season to come, it was 2005. For Erik Ainge, it was a season to forget, and it all started here. Ainge, trying to come off a shoulder injury from the season prior, threw a pair of interceptions and was thoroughly outplayed by both UAB’s Darrell Hackney, but more importantly, Rick Clausen, the man he was battling with for the starting job.
Ainge’s drop off personified Tennessee’s dramatic fall from grace in 2005, winning just five games and finishing with a below-.500 record for the first time under Phillip Fulmer. The Vols mustered just seven points in a loss the following week at Florida, and though they would rattle off a pair of wins following that, one of which in Death Valley against fourth ranked LSU, they would then go on to lose four straight.
This Vols offense was downright putrid. They scored 30 or more points just once all year and were held to 20 or fewer points six times. An embarrassing loss at Notre Dame finished off a home and home sweep of the Vols by the Irish, and a loss against Vanderbilt in their second to last game of the year meant the Vols wouldn’t be going bowling for the first time since 1988. It was certainly a season to forget.
2006: (23) Tennessee def. (9) California 35-18
This emphatic dismantling of ninth ranked Cal to begin the ‘06 season quickly told the country that these Vols were far from what they showed the season prior. The defense was dominant, and most importantly, Erik Ainge looked like he was healthy, throwing for 291 yards and four touchdowns on just 18 attempts.
Robert Meachem hauled in 5 passes for 182 yards and a pair of very long touchdowns (42 and 80 yards) en route to a record setting season while the Vols defense contained Desean Jackson while the game was still in reach. A pair of garbage time touchdowns for Cal made the final score look respectable-ish, but it was 35-3 heading into the final quarter, and all the starters had been pulled. A statement win to start the season.
The Vols took care of business the following week against Air Force, but we were just entering the infancy of Florida’s stranglehold on this rivalry. Tennessee led 17-7 late in the third quarter, but Chris Leak...that damn Chris Leak...orchestrated a comeback, and, along with Tennessee’s offense completely stagnating in the second half, Florida was able to string together a touchdown drive late in the fourth to go up 21-20 which would end up being the final score.
The Vols would regroup following that loss, winning five in a row, including hanging a 50-burger on 10th ranked Georgia in Athens. Arian Foster found the end zone three times that day, and Tennessee’s 51 points are the most they’ve ever scored against the Dawgs.
A pair of losses to LSU (who would finish the season third in the AP Poll) and the famed Darren McFadden/Felix Jones-led Arkansas squad were tough to swallow in large part because of Erik Ainge’s ankle sprain that kept him essentially out of both games, leaving freshman backup Jonathan Crompton to assume QB duties. Ainge would return for the final two games and play well in victories over Vanderbilt and Kentucky.
Tennessee would fall short against Penn State in the Outback Bowl, 20-10. Robert Meachem’s 1,298 yards would break Marcus Nash’s school record for receiving yards in a season. Despite a good season, Florida made sure they had the last laugh, winning the BCS National Championship.
2007: (12) California def. (15) Tennessee 45-31
Cal got their revenge in 2007, defeating the Vols to kick off the season and split the home and home. It was a close, high scoring game in the first half, but a late field goal in the second quarter put Cal up 31-21, and the game would never get closer for Tennessee.
This marks the first time since 1994 that Tennessee lost its season opener, and it was largely because they couldn’t stop Justin Forsett. Forsett ran for 156 yards and a touchdown, asserting his will against a Vols defense that couldn’t get consistent stops at all in the second half.
Erik Ainge had a solid game, throwing for 271 yards on 47 attempts and three touchdowns. It would kick off his best season in Knoxville as he would throw 31 touchdowns, tied for the third most in Vols single season history with Hendon Hooker. He also threw 519 times this season, by far the most attempts a Tennessee quarterback has ever had in a season. We couldn’t be more far removed from the 2004 season that saw three Vols running backs eclipse 1,000 yards.
Arian Foster rushed for 89 yards on 13 attempts against Cal, and 2007 would also be his best season with the Vols. It would be his lone 1,000 yard season as he ran for 1,193 yards and 12 touchdowns.
2007 was a season of bests, but it would also be a season of lasts. The ‘07 season still marks the last time Tennessee won 10 games, and it also marks the last time the Vols won the SEC East and appeared in the SEC Title game.
2008: UCLA def. (18) Tennessee 27-24 (OT)
Well, we have finally made it. The final year of the Fulmer era, and it ended (began?) with a whimper. If ever there were a way to kick off this disaster of a season, an upset overtime loss to what would end up being a four-win UCLA team is certainly a way to do it. Who would’ve guessed that Kai Forbath would have put the first nail in Phillip Fulmer’s coffin?
Jonathan Crompton took over under center for the Vols following Erik Ainge’s final season, and it was disastrous. Better days would be ahead for Crompton, but certainly not in 2008. The Vols averaged 17.3 points per game, ranking 111th in the country, and if it weren’t for a top 10 defense, the season could have been a lot worse than 5-7.
Tennessee would drop their first three games in SEC play to Florida, Auburn, and Georgia, and the seat was on fire beneath Fulmer. The school and Fulmer agreed to part ways early in November, and a loss to a 3-6 Wyoming team in week 10 followed that decision.
Under Fulmer, Tennessee won their first National Championship since 1951. Fulmer trails only Robert Neyland, the namesake of the stadium, in wins in program history.
Next time we visit, have the punching bag ready. We’re in for the painful Kiffin/Dooley/Jones years.