Tennessee Volunteers Football: Top Upsets in Volunteer History
For all the disappointing losses Tennessee has experienced the past few years, we have had our fair shares of amazing upsets. After all, you really only need one thing to upset a heavy favorite—luck.
Some of these games you may have seen in real life. Some of them may have taken place before you were born. That's the beauty of upsets. They can happy anywhere at anytime—some bigger than others.
For this list, in order to narrow it down, I had create a way to determine which ones would make the cut.
I focused on three things—national relevance, who was favored (by how much) and shock factor. Personally, these three components were the most accurate in determining which games made this list.
Hopefully, you will remember some of these, remembering the feeling of joy, victory and relief that you felt during the actual game.
Let's get on with the show.
Honorable Mentions: Miami Hurricanes 2003, Georgia Bulldogs 2004
Here we have some games that just didn't make the cut. While they may have been upsets, they just weren't as exciting or meaningful as the others.
The Georgia-Tennessee game is an underrated game that many tend to overlook. I never know why, because it's always an exciting matchup that tends to go down to the wire. This was a perfect example of that.
In 2004, the SEC East was, once again, up for grabs. Tennessee had just beaten Florida for the second year in a row and wanted to go to the SEC championship. It showed in this game.
Tennessee went into Sanford Stadium and ended Georgia's 17-game home win streak. It never really felt like Georgia controlled the game because they never led.
Tennessee contained the Georgia offense and kept a constant defense. The final score was 19-14 and ended a four-year losing streak to the Dawgs. Pretty good for a team that was a 12.5-point underdog.
Speaking of home winning streaks, when Tennessee went into the Orange Bowl to face No. 8-ranked Miami, nobody really gave the Vols a chance. The Hurricanes were riding a 28-game home winning streak. They had BCS hopes and maybe a national championship.
The Vols were having none of it.
Much like the Georgia game, the Vols kept up a great defensive effort and a steady offense. Miami could get nothing going, and it eventually led to their loss. It was an amazing thing watching the Hurricanes realize that their winning streak, BCS aspirations and season went down the drain.
Something tells me we will see more of them later on.
The 1988 season had been a fluke for the Volunteers—a bad one. They finished 5-6 and were not taken seriously going into the 1989 season.
On the flip side, UCLA was coming into the 1989 season off a hot streak where they finished 10-2 with a bowl win. They lost a lot of players to the NFL, but they were still considered a Top-10 team. Also, the Vols had yet to win in the Rose Bowl versus the Bruins. That's why UCLA was expected to easily beat Tennessee.
Well, how do you think it looked when Tennessee put a whooping on UCLA, winning 24-6?
Simply put, UCLA's offense was shut down while Tennessee's kept going. We ran all over the UCLA defense with Reggie Cobb and Chuck Webb (also awesomely known as the Cobb/Webb duo). It was over pretty quickly in Pasadena.
From this game on, the Vols would win nine more (good enough for an SEC co-champion title) and finish the year with a record of 11-1 and a win versus Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl.
This game really marked the return of Tennessee football. The 80s were an up-and-down decade for Tennessee. They could not find any consistency. However, beating UCLA in 1989 showed the college football world that Tennessee was ready to be back on top and continue their winning ways.
Auburn came into Neyland Stadium ranked No.1 and ready to showcase their featured back—Bo Jackson. Nobody really knew what to expect from the Volunteers, as they weren't even ranked, nor did anyone find any model of consistency with them.
It was all Vols—all day.
Back then, Tony Robinson was their starting quarterback, and he was as good as any quarterback had ever been. He was certainly the star of the day, throwing for 259 yards and four touchdowns. With his help, Tennessee took a 24-0 lead before halftime.
Auburn would battle back but could not overcome the deficit. Bo Jackson got 17 carries but could only get 80 yards versus Tennessee's stifling defense. He left in the third quarter with a bruised knee. It would only cement the Vols' 38-20 victory.
The fans rushed the field with 17 seconds left, causing some confusion that was quickly resolved, allowing the players to finish the game and the fans to continue their celebration.
This wasn't the only big upset from this season's team—more on that later.
Tennessee had lost to Duke in Neyland Stadium to begin the season, lost to Auburn two games later and tied with LSU two weeks after. Alabama was riding an 11-game win streak versus the Volunteers. The odds were certainly not stacked in the Vols' favor.
However, nobody told Tennessee that.
The Crimson Tide jumped out to an early lead, but the Vols kept strong. A long touchdown pass to Willie Gault from Alan Cockrell got the team, and the crowd, going.The two teams battled back and forth, eventually pushing it to the fourth quarter, where the score was 28-21 in Tennessee's favor.
Out of nowhere, Chuck Coleman burst down the sideline for a 34-yard touchdown run, putting the Vols up 35-21. Alabama wasn't done yet. They scored again quickly and got the ball back in time for one last drive.
They threw a deep pass on fourth down to the end zone with 17 seconds left, but it was intercepted by the Vols. The Tennessee crowd went into a roar, and the fans rushed the field, taking down the goalposts.
The 11-year streak had ended.
In a season of disappointment, this was the game that almost made up for it.
The ever-lovable Sugar Vols went into the 1986 Sugar Bowl in Louisiana as severe underdogs to the Miami Hurricanes, who had their eyes on a national championship. Tennessee was just a minor roadblock to them—a small fry.
Miami running back Alonzo Highsmith confirmed this sentiment when he wore a t-shirt that said: "The only Vols I know are A, E, I, O, U and sometimes, Y." Adding to that was how the Miami players looked away during the handshake at the coin toss according to team captain White. Clearly, they did not respect this Volunteers team.
It started with Miami scoring a touchdown on a fake punt to Michael Irvin. People began to think that it was the end for the Volunteers. Boy were they wrong.
Tennessee would absolutely dominate for the rest of the game, as its offense got going and its defense pressured Vinny Testaverde all game. They forced three interceptions and sacked him seven times. At some points, Tennessee had eight guys blitzing him.
Offensively, Daryl Dickey and Jeff Powell led the way as the QB/RB tandem. Dickey threw for 135 yards and a touchdown while Powell rushed for 104 yards and put the nail in the coffin with a 60-yard run in the third quarter to go up 28-7.
At the end of the day, the Vols won 35-7 and exerted their dominance over the Hurricanes. This game proved that Tennessee was ready to be back in the national discussion again.
Notre Dame 1991
The Fighting Irish had beat the Vols in a heartbreaker in Neyland the year before, so this game was especially important for Tennessee fans. They would have their chance to get back at Notre Dame in South Bend.
Through the first half, however, it was not looking like that was the case.
Notre Dame jumped out to 31-7 lead before the second half even started, mostly due to confusion and Tennessee mistakes. Most Vols fans couldn't believe what was happening as the Vols were getting walloped.
Before the end of the half, however, one play would change the fate of the game. Notre Dame lined up for a 32-yard field goal, hoping to increase the lead to 27 points. When the ball was snapped, however, Darryl Hardy blocked the kick, and it was scooped up by Floyd Miley, who ran it all the way back for a touchdown.
We may never know the words spoken in that locker room at halftime, but all we know is that they got Tennessee pumped. The Volunteers finally felt that they had a chance.
They successfully shut down the run, forcing the Irish to pass. When they could get nothing going, Tennessee knew how to take advantage. They chipped away at the 17-point lead before making it 34-28 with around nine minutes to go in the fourth.
Soon after Notre Dame got the ball back, they threw an interception straight into the hands of Dale Carter. Tennessee marched down the field, and Andy Kelly threw a screen pass to his tight end who ran for the touchdown. The completion gave Kelly the most career touchdown passes and yardage in Tennessee Volunteers history.
The Vols took their improbable lead with the extra point, making it 35-34. This was actually happening in South Bend.
Notre Dame wasn't finished, though, not by a long shot. With the roar of the home crowd behind them, they put themselves in position to attempt a game-winning field goal. Tennessee got a piece of it, and it went wide left.
The game would be forever immortalized as "The Miracle at South Bend", which gave some closure to Johnny Majors (the head coach) who had been screwed out of the Heisman years earlier by Paul Hornung—a Notre Dame player.
In fact, in a recap of the game by Sports Illustrated's William Reed, legendary Lou Holtz described it as "the most difficult loss I've ever been associated with."
Just goes to show that you can't teach heart.
*For shorter, highlight video, check out this link.
This is the game that you might want to ask your father or grandfather about. If you do, get prepared for story time as you're taken through that magical day.
It was a chilly day as LSU entered Shield-Watkins Field with a No.1 ranking. Eventual Heisman winner Billy Cannon led the Tigers, who were looking to set aside the pesky Volunteers.
The crowd of around 47,000 was cheering on the Volunteers, who were hanging with the Tigers through the first half. It was a defense-oriented game, as LSU had only scored one touchdown to go up on the Vols 7-0.
The third quarter is where it started to get really interesting. Tennessee scored two touchdowns quickly to take a 14-point lead. They did this by intercepting a 59-yard pass for a touchdown and then punching it in on an offensive series.
By now, the crowd is on their feet in thundering applause. Somehow, LSU braved through this in the fourth quarter to score a touchdown, requiring just an extra point to tie it 14-14.
But the Tigers had a different idea. Besides one rushing touchdown caused by a turnover, the Tennessee offense had nothing going for them. From this, LSU deduced that a short-yardage rush by Cannon would be all they needed to go on top 15-14.
It was a pitch to the right, which was looking like an easy conversion. Cannon cut in just a little, expecting to punch through.
Out of nowhere, the Vols swarmed. Bill Majors, Wayne Grubb and Charley Severance were the ones who made what is maybe the most famous defensive stop in SEC history. The score stood at 14-13.
LSU could get nothing else going, and the Volunteers upset the top-ranked Tigers. The crowd went into a frenzy, realizing what they had just been able to witness.
And so, it was on that cold chilly day that Tennessee shocked the world. What could possibly be better than that?
*I was unable to find a video of the game. Sorry for the inconvenience.
That was how much the Florida Gators were favored in this game. Tennessee had not won in the swamp since 1971. Florida was in direct contention for the national championship and were considered the team that had the best chance to beat Miami.
The game had been postponed due to the tragedy of September 11th. It was set to be played on December 1st and would decide who would represent the East in the conference championship.
There was something brewing in the Volunteers, even before the game had started. According to Andy Staple of Sports Illustrated, defensive end Will Overstreet was quoted as saying: "If they need a pep talk, they're dead." Phillip Fulmer's pregame speech solidified this idea.
Tennessee jumped out to an early start, scoring 14 points off the back off Travis Stephens and the arm of Casey Clausen. These Gators weren't going down just yet, however, as Rex Grossman led a massive attack to make the score 20-14 before the half. It was going to be a dogfight, and both teams knew it.
Both teams came out fired up for the second half, and it got started quickly. Travis Stephens proceeded to rip a huge run down the sidelines for a touchdown, making it 21-20. Soon enough, Florida kicked a field goal, once again tipping the lead in their favor 23-21.
But the man of the night (Travis Stephens) once again proved to be too shifty for the Gators to handle, as he flew down the sidelines on a 34-yard run, which would eventually lead to a two-yard rushing touchdown by Jabari Davis. Tennessee would fail on a two-point conversion, however, making it 27-23.
Another Florida field goal made it 27-26, and it was nearing the end of the game. Tennessee knew they had to act fast, and boy did they ever. They marched right down the field, taking valuable time off the clock, making it 34-26. You could slice the tension with a knife.
Rex Grossman would give the Gators one last breath of life though. With 1:10 remaining, he would pass for yet another touchdown, making it 34-32. Florida lined up for the two-point conversion, hoping to send this one into overtime. Then, one of the best plays in Volunteer history happened.
Grossman took the snap and shuffled back, looking for the open receiver. Before he could properly survey the end zone, however, John Henderson flushed him out of the pocket, forcing him to attempt a pass to Jabar Gaffney. It fell incomplete.
Vols fans around the nation (including this one) rejoiced. The dreadful streak had ended, and it ended in the best way possible.
After the game, Fulmer addressed his team, congratulating them on proving everybody wrong. In his words, "To hell with Lee Corso!"
The win was made even better a month later, when it was revealed that Steve Spurrier was leaving the Florida Gators head coach position. His final game at The Swamp was a debilitating loss, finally forcing him to shut up about the Volunteers.
Albert Haynesworth said it best, according to Sports Illustrated's Andy Staple, when remarking about The Swamp, saying "It's The Swamp, I guess, but we made it into a little old pond today."
Truly the greatest Tennessee Volunteer upset of all time.
*Big thanks to the people who posted these videos, especially yankeefanintenn, who had the majority of them.