Well, as Joel pointed out, the News Sentinel’s Dave Hooker recently came out with his Top 10 games in Tennessee football history. It is an interesting list, but (like Joel) I’m not so certain I agree with all of the games on Hooker’s list.
Given the fact that I am still making my way through my “Great Games” series, it seems appropriate for me to chime in with my thoughts on this. Here are my top 10 games in Tennessee football history (with comparison to Dave Hooker’s ranking):
The Great Games
Gate 21’s Top 10 All-Time
Tennessee Football Games
No. 10: 1989 - Tennessee vs. UCLA
The Rose Bowl | Dave Hooker Rank: Unranked
I know that some will question this one, but this game still stands out to me as one of the best. I toyed with ranking the 1985 Auburn win at No. 10, but I have to go with the Vols' 1989 trip to Pasadena to take on the Bruins. This game was early in the season, and at that point UCLA was highly touted.
Tennessee had been beaten in both their prior trips to the Rose Bowl to play the Bruins (1975 and 1967), and many thought they would repeat that trend, as the Vols came off of their worst season in recent memory and a close call in their season opener versus Colorado State.
The Vols, however, stepped up to the challenge and proved that their 5-6 record for 1988 was only a bump in the road as they came out gunning for the No. 6-ranked Bruins. The Vols completely shut down the UCLA offense with their own brand of SEC defense en route to a 24-6 victory.
That game set the stage for the rest of the season—one which included 10 more wins and only a single loss. The Vols would go on to win an SEC Championship, beat Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl that year, and end with a No. 5 ranking.
Still, by my mind, it all started in California…
No. 9: 1999 Fiesta Bowl - Florida State vs. Tennessee
Sun Devil Stadium | Dave Hooker Rank: No. 1
Dave Hooker had this game as No. 1, but I cannot in good conscience give it that distinction. While the 1999 Fiesta Bowl did give Tennessee its first Consensus National Championship since 1951, the game itself was not nearly as spectacular as others that season.
First of all, both Tennessee and Florida State played very sloppily throughout the game as a result of the more than four-week layoff leading up to the contest. Second—in fairness to Florida State—the Seminoles, due to the injury to Chris Weinke, were playing with a backup quarterback, Marcus Outzen, who (to my knowledge) never started another game after the championship.
Finally, the game was exciting, but probably only if you were a Tennessee or Florida State fan. The reason for this is that the two teams were extremely closely matched at most positions. All of that said, I have such amazing memories of this game and finally seeing another championship for the Big Orange, that I have to include it in the Top 10, regardless of its flaws.
After all, a championship is a very special thing…
No. 8: 1939 - Alabama vs. Tennessee
Shields-Watkins Field | Dave Hooker Rank: Unranked
Obviously, I did not attend or watch this game. Still, the legendary status of this game lingers even today—as does pretty much everything about the 1939 squad. I know this is hard to imagine in the modern era, but the 1939 squad not only went undefeated, but they also completed the entire regular season without being scored upon.
Think about it this way: from the third game of the 1938 season until the conclusion of the 1939 season, Tennessee played 71 consecutive quarters without allowing a single point—a record which stands to this day.
The 1939 game against Alabama was but one of the legendary battles of this era between then-Col. Robert Neyland’s (he would be promoted to the rank of Brigadier General during World War II) Vols and the Crimson Tide. Led by Johnny Butler and George Cafego, Neyland’s Vols managed to out-run, out-block, and out-wit the Tide in a 21-0 victory.
The “feather in the cap” for the day came on Johnny Butler’s 56-yard run to the endzone in the second quarter. This was the last Tennessee-Alabama game that Neyland would coach until his return from military service in 1947.
An Oldie, but a Goodie…
No. 7: 1992 - Florida vs. Tennessee
Neyland Stadium | Dave Hooker Rank: Unranked
For all the reasons I described in my post on this game, I really feel this was an extremely important game in the history of the program. Ignoring all of the side issues surrounding this contest—the Faxgate affair, Johnny Majors' heart problems, the deluge of water that fell during the game, etc.—I really feel this was a watershed game (no pun intended).
First of all, it was the first of the real battles between Tennessee and Florida during the Steve Spurrier era. Second, it was the first home conference game ever coached by Phillip Fulmer.
By my mind, this game is what ushered Tennessee football into the modern era, and set the stage for all of the excitement during the 1990s.
No. 6: 1996 Comp USA Citrus Bowl - Tennessee vs. Ohio State
Citrus Bowl Stadium | Dave Hooker Rank: Unranked
Some might think this game an odd choice, but as I made clear in my article on this game, it really was one of the best games for Tennessee in the history of the program.
Tennessee and Ohio State both came in ranked fourth (albeit in different polls), and both were disappointed that they did not manage to make it to a top-tier bowl. Both teams had a chip on their shoulder as they battled throughout a rain-soaked game. Tennessee held Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George to a season low and fought to the end to win the day.
This win propelled Tennessee to a No. 3 final ranking—putting them ahead of the Florida Gators, who had given the Vols their only loss of the season.
This game established the momentum of the program for the seasons to follow. In my opinion, this game was a key step toward a national championship.
No. 5: 1959 - LSU vs. Tennessee
Shields-Watkins Field | Dave Hooker Rank: No. 6
I agree with Dave Hooker that the win against Billy Cannon and the LSU Tigers ranks among the all-time greatest games. No one thought Tennessee really had a chance in that game, and—on paper—they were right. Billy Cannon was the man-beast running back of his day and was fearsome for his ability to shred defenses.
On most days when the 1959 Tigers played, they put on a clinic. The iron wall of orange-clad defenders shut that down and did a little teaching of their own.
After fumbling the ball on their own two-yard line and giving the Tigers an easy six points, the Vol defense found a way to save the game. Their goal-line stop as the Tigers tried for the two-point conversion probably ranks as one of the all-time greatest defensive plays in Tennessee history.
Here’s former Voice of the Vols George Mooney with the call.
[>> See post to listen to audio <<]
When it was all said and done, the Vols came out on top in a 14-13 thriller.
No. 4: 1982 - Alabama vs. Tennessee
Neyland Stadium | Dave Hooker Rank: Unranked
This game was the final step in Johnny Majors’ rehabilitation of the Tennessee program from the doldrums of the late 1970s. Before that win, the Vols had not beaten Alabama in 11 deplorably long years. After more than a decade, Tennessee finally managed to beat the Tide in the 35-28 victory.
The fact that it occurred during the waning days of the 1982 World’s Fair made it all the more special. This also marked the end of the Bear Bryant era, at least as far as Tennessee was concerned, as Bryant would never again coach a game in Neyland Stadium—passing away in 1983.
This game single-handedly returned Tennessee to its position as a year-in-year-out contender in the SEC, and re-asserted Tennessee’s tradition of winning.
Before this game, Tennessee was a second-tier team in the minds of most. That changed on "The Third Saturday in October," 1982.
No. 3: 1986 Sugar Bowl - Tennessee vs. Miami
Louisiana Superdome | Dave Hooker Rank: No. 5
Ahh, the Sugar Vols. No one thought the 1985-86 Tennessee squad really had a chance against the No. 2-ranked Miami Hurricanes. The Vols, however, decided to make everyone remember them, as they pounded Vinny Testaverde and the Hurricanes on both sides of the ball.
While this game was played in a neutral venue—the Superdome—it really amounted to being played in “Neyland Stadium South” as the Big Orange faithful traveled by the thousands to cheer on their underdog Vols. This game single-handedly elevated Tennessee to “national” status as they destroyed Miami, 35-7, in the Big Easy.
Here’s John Ward calling “yet another” great play by Tennessee—namely Chris White’s fourth-quarter interception for a touchdown.
[>> See post to listen to audio <<]
No. 2: 1991 - Tennessee vs. Notre Dame
Notre Dame Stadium | Dave Hooker Rank: No. 7
There really isn’t much that needs to be said about the game referred to simply as “The Miracle at South Bend.” It still stands as the single most significant non-conference regular-season game the Vols ever played.
While some would point to the victories over Penn State in 1971 and 1972, those were played in Neyland Stadium, which gave the Vols the huge benefit of a home crowd. In 1991, however, the Vols had to go on the road and play the No. 5 team in the country.
The reality is that Tennessee was beaten in this game by the end of the first half. The fact that the team and the coaching staff never gave up and kept fighting stands as a testament to the 1991 squad’s character. It still stands as the greatest comeback in Tennessee football history, and serves as a monument to Winston Churchill’s adage: “Never, Never, Never Give Up!“
Furthermore, the final play of the game as called by John Ward stands as one of the greatest (albeit somewhat botched) calls of his storied career.
[>> See post to listen to audio <<]
Don’t you just love John Ward?
No. 1: 1998 - Florida vs. Tennessee
Neyland Stadium | Dave Hooker Rank: No. 2
Having just written about this game (reliving it in my mind along with the voices in my head), I still come to the conclusion that there has never been a more exhilarating and exciting game played at Neyland Stadium—at least not in the modern era.
This game was an absolute defensive slugfest from start to finish, and after the game was over, I was physically and mentally exhausted—I cannot imagine what the players felt like.
While I do have the 1999 Fiesta Bowl listed in my Top 10 as well (No. 9), in my opinion this game was the high-water mark for the 1998 team. This was the game that defined the team and the season.
Winning the game against Florida completely changed the mindset of everyone in Orange Nation—suddenly we all believed that a championship was possible.
Thus, even though you don’t get a trophy for winning a home game during the regular season, in my opinion, this was the Vols’ finest hour.
Well, there’s my list. Feel free to tell me I’m wrong (as I so often am)…
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