Part one of a two-day piece, where tomorrow we'll look at something more uplifting...but as the 2008 season closes in, here's one more look at the past.
You can't fully appreciate the joy without the heartbreak, and so here's a painful reminder of what might've been: the 10 most heartbreaking losses in the modern era of Tennessee football (we use 1989 as a starting point both because I'm only 26 years old, and because the Vols' 11-1 SEC Championship season that year served as the modern genesis of the success the Vols have enjoyed in the last two decades).
10. 2002: No. 10 Florida 30 - No. 4 Tennessee 13 (Knoxville)
The worst five minutes of my life. One year after finally beating Florida in The Swamp and sending Steve Spurrier packing, the Vols looked poised to take the SEC mantle from the Gators. Florida had been beaten badly by Miami the week before.
As a driving rain fell in Knoxville, the teams were scoreless with under five minutes to play in the first half when the Gators scored on 4th-and-goal from the one-yard line. From there, Casey Clausen put the ball on the ground three times in four minutes, and a defensive standoff turned into Rex Grossman taking advantage of the moment.
A game that was tied at zero with under five minutes to play in the second quarter became a 24-0 Florida lead at halftime. The Vols never recovered.
9. 2000: No. 6 Florida 27 - No. 11 Tennessee 23 (Knoxville)
With most of the players from the national championship runs now in the NFL, the Vols started A.J. Suggs at quarterback and were given little chance to win. But behind Travis Henry's 175 yards and a defense that didn't allow a first down until late in the second quarter, Tennessee gave themselves every chance to win.
However, those chances kept turning into field goals instead of touchdowns—five of them on the day—and Florida had life. When the Vols couldn't get one first down to ice it late, Florida drove the length of the field as time wound down, and Jabar Gaffney caught/didn't catch a pass in the end zone to give the Gators the win.
8. 1996: Memphis 21 - No. 6 Tennessee 17 (Memphis)
The one and only time in history the Tigers have beaten the Vols. Peyton Manning threw for 296 yards but had two interceptions. Memphis had only 153 yards of offense, but (illegally) ran a kickoff back for a touchdown late in the third quarter to tie the game at 14, and then got the yards they had to have on their final drive.
It's my understanding that this is still the single greatest event in the history of the Memphis Athletic Department.
7. 1995: No. 4 Florida 62 - No. 8 Tennessee 37 (Gainesville)
The one you absolutely can't blame on Peyton Manning. The Vols went to Gainesville and jumped all over Florida, scoring in two plays on the opening drive to begin a run that culminated in a Raymond Austin return of a Danny Wuerffel fumble for a score that put the Vols up 30-14 late in the second quarter.
But the Gators scored before the half to pull closer, Tennessee missed a field goal to open the third quarter, it started raining—and everything went wrong.
Consecutive fumbles by Jay Graham started a Gator run that saw them take the lead in the blink of an eye. Then they simply kept scoring, putting 41 points up in the second half. Quite possibly the worst half of football in Tennessee history.
6. 1992: Arkansas 25 - No. 4 Tennessee 24 (Knoxville)
Under interim head coach Phillip Fulmer, the Vols had stunned Georgia and Florida to become the lead horse in the first-ever SEC East race. Johnny Majors had returned to the sideline by October, where Heath Shuler's Vols were undefeated and staring down the barrel of a showdown with eventual National Champion Alabama. Only 1-4 SEC newcomer Arkansas stood in the way.
The Vols held a 24-16 lead with under three minutes to play when Orlando Watters returned a punt 71 yards for a score. But when Todd Kelly absolutely murdered the Arkansas quarterback on the two-point conversion, all seemed well.
Then Arkansas recovered an onside kick, drove inside the 30, and nailed a 41-yard field goal with :02 left to break the hearts of the Vol nation. This was the beginning of the end for Johnny Majors.
5. 1999: Arkansas 28 - No. 3 Tennessee 24 (Fayetteville)
Clint Stoerner used all his karma in two seasons, going from the goat of the dramatic '98 game to the hero in 1999. The Vols were third in the polls and second in the BCS, on pace to play the winner of Florida/Florida State for the title, and hadn't lost an SEC game in November since the 1980s.
After the previous season, you knew this game would be tight, but a Travis Henry TD put the Vols up 24-14 in the second half. The lead wasn't safe though: Stoerner found Vol nemesis Anthony Lucas on a beautiful throw and catch to put Arkansas ahead 28-24 with under 4:00 to play.
Tee Martin drove the Vols down close, but a fourth down pass into the end zone was incomplete—and Tennessee's hopes of defending their National Championship were dashed.
4. 1990: No. 1 Notre Dame 34 - No. 9 Tennessee 29 (Knoxville)
Back before National Championships, losing to Florida, or Phillip Fulmer, this game was just about as big as they came in Knoxville. Notre Dame was still Notre Dame and loaded with talent, but the Vols were very good too. Tennessee stood toe-to-toe with the number one team in the country, holding a lead in the fourth quarter of an incredibly well-played football game.
Rocket Ishmail simply wouldn't be contained all day, finally breaking loose to put the Irish ahead. Notre Dame built their lead to 34-23 before Andy Kelly led a frantic drive downfield for a score. The two-point conversion failed, but then the Vols recovered the only onside kick I can ever remember them being successful on.
Kelly again drove the Vols in range, and everyone in Neyland Stadium knew we were on the verge of something monumental. But his final pass was intercepted in the end zone, and Notre Dame held on.
3. 2001: Georgia 26 - No. 6 Tennessee 24 (Knoxville)
After gaining revenge on LSU the previous week, the Vols looked to do the same to Georgia as they jumped on a wounded Dawg team early. But Georgia held fast and played their way back into the game thanks to a punt return, and as the second half unfolded, this turned into a classic.
Georgia took a 20-17 lead in the fourth quarter, but Casey Clausen and the Vols picked up a critical fourth down conversion to keep a drive alive. However, Clausen was intercepted, and Georgia needed first downs to ice it. The Vol defense held behind a roaring Neyland Stadium crowd, giving Tennessee the ball back with a minute to play.
On the best call of Randy Sanders' career, Travis Stephens took a screen pass 62 yards down the left sideline with 44 seconds to play in one of the loudest moments in Neyland Stadium history. But after an ill-fated squib kick, freshman David Greene and new head coach Mark Richt wrote their names into the lore of this rivalry, as Tennessee played prevent and Greene picked the Vol D apart.
At the six-yard line with 10 seconds to play, the Dawgs snuck the fullback into the secondary and Greene fired a touchdown pass. Allow me to just say that you'd never hear John Ward talking about stepping on someone's face and breaking their noses.
2. 1990: Alabama 9 - No. 3 Tennessee 6 (Knoxville)
I didn't think this one would ever be topped. Ranked third and the owners of an unusual 4-0-2 record after tying eventual National Champion Colorado and No. 5 Auburn, the Vols were thinking SEC and National Championship. Alabama, who'd won four straight against Tennessee at this point, was struggling at 2-3 under new head coach Gene Stallings.
If there was ever a year to not just beat Alabama, but crush them, this was it—and you could tell right away it just wasn't going to materialize. Tennessee couldn't move the ball at all, and when they did, they turned it over soon after. Alabama wasn't moving either, but they hung around and hung around. Greg Burke was asked twice early to kick field goals of more than 50 yards, and he hit one of them.
Late in the contest, with the score tied at 6-6 and Vol fans thinking about a possible third tie in seven games, Tennessee finally got good field position when Alabama was forced to punt from their own end zone and Dale Carter returned it to the 35-yard line.
Burke was called on again from 50 yards, and for Vol fans, the worst that could happen at this point was a tie if he missed—except Alabama blocked the kick, and the ball went flying 20 yards downfield, giving the Crimson Tide a shot at their own field goal. Phillip Doyle from 47 yards as time expired completed the stunning heartbreak.
1. 2001: No. 21 LSU 31 - No. 2 Tennessee 20 (SEC Championship)
The Vols had survived the heartbreak of No. 3 on this list and put themselves in position to play for the National Championship by beating Florida in Gainesville the week before. The SEC Championship Game seemed like a detour on the way to the Rose Bowl, as the Vols were 2-0 in their two previous appearances and had already beaten LSU 26-18 early in the year without Donte' Stallworth.
When the Vols took a 17-7 lead in the second quarter, my friends and I in the Georgia Dome started talking about taking an RV from Knoxville to Pasadena. Rohan Davey and LaBrandon Toefield had been knocked out of the game. It was over...but the Vols couldn't put it away.
LSU came back to tie it behind Matt Mauck. Then they took the lead after a rare Travis Stephens fumble. Then the Vols drove to 1st-and-goal at the four, but came away with only a field goal to cut it to 24-20. But when the Vol D held LSU on the ensuing drive and got the ball back midway through the fourth quarter and started marching downfield, I was sure we were going to win.
Then Donte' Stallworth caught a pass, turned upfield, and got stripped. Suddenly the ball was on the turf. LSU pounced on it—and our championship dreams. The Tigers would punch it in on 4th-and-goal from the one just for effect to seal our fate.
Tennessee was two quarters away from playing for the National Championship. We haven't been that close since.
Tomorrow, we'll conclude this piece with a look at something more uplifting...