Tennessee Football's 10 Most Exciting Games, 1989-2007

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Tennessee Football's 10 Most Exciting Games, 1989-2007

And now for something much more exciting.

As I've discovered CBS College Sports Network over the last month and their nonstop run of classic SEC Football in August, my TiVo continues to seek out classic Tennessee games that I haven't seen in their entirety since they were initially played.

With almost a dozen Vol games on tap on the network over the next two weeks, there are some that I have a passing interest in...but there are others that I find myself incredibly excited to see roll around on the broadcast schedule because they're simply such great television.

That got me to thinking about the most exciting Tennessee games in the modern era.

Now, this list is not about the most memorable or the greatest comebacks, and it puts a much smaller emphasis on rivalry.  You won't find the National Championship on this list or any emphasis given to games that were played in that season, nor will you find any blowouts or games that weren't any good until the finish.

If you're looking for a more comprehensive list of the biggest overall wins, check out The 50 Best Vol Games feature at SouthEastern Sports Blog that ranks the biggest wins.

You can find the first part of this feature from yesterday here: The 10 Most Heartbreaking Games.

These 10 are simply, in my opinion, the greatest individual football games, the most exciting and dramatic from start to finish. They're the ones I'd want to watch right now more than any others—the ones where you can take any football fan, sit him or her down, and say, "Watch this."

(And yes...the Vols win them all.)

 

10. 1991: No. 13 Tennessee 35 - No. 5 Notre Dame 34 (South Bend)

All right, I said none of the greatest comebacks, but you have to include The Miracle at South Bend.

It really is good television throughout because it's fascinating to see how it goes completely wrong at every turn for the Vols in the first two quarters.  One year after the Irish broke Vol hearts in Knoxville, Notre Dame built an inexplicable 31-7 lead in the second quarter and was kicking a field goal to end the first half.

The Vols blocked the kick and ran it back for a touchdown, setting up a furious rally in the second half.

An Aaron Hayden screen pass on the heels of a Dale Carter interception would complete the rally and put the Vols in front, but Notre Dame drove downfield to set up a game-winning field goal attempt. Jeremy Lincoln blocked the kick off his hind end—no joke—and the miracle was complete.

 

9. 1990: No. 10 Tennessee 23 - Virginia 22 (Sugar Bowl)

Playing in the Sugar Bowl as SEC Champions for the first (and last) time since 1985, the Vols met a Virginia team that had been ranked No. 1 in October before their starting quarterback Shawn Moore was injured.  With Moore back on the field for this one, the Cavs played like the No. 1 team for three quarters, building a shocking 16-3 lead on the Vols heading to the final period.

This game contains the most exciting fourth quarter I know of, starting with the Vols intercepting Moore at the nine-yard line.  Andy Kelly played the final quarter everyone dreams of (14 of 18 in the fourth), leading the Vols downfield for a score to make it 16-10.

Virginia kicked a field goal—the Vols scored a touchdown.  Virginia kicked another field goal to make it 22-17 with 2:31 to play, but Kelly calmly drove the Vols 75 yards, with Tony Thompson punching in the final go-ahead score with seconds left on the clock.

 

8. 2006: No. 13 Tennessee 51 - No. 10 Georgia 33 (Athens)

You look at the score and it doesn't seem very exciting, but this game had everything.

Georgia was undefeated and sporting the number one defense in the country; the Vols' only loss was by one point to eventual national champion Florida.  Leading 10-7 in the second quarter, Mikey Henderson raced 86 yards on a punt return for a score for UGA.  When the Vols punted again, Georgia went 85 yards in eight plays for another score to make it 24-7.

Tennessee got a crucial score before the half to make it 24-14, then intercepted Joe Tereshinski on the second play of the second half to set up a score and instantly make it a game again, 24-21.  The teams traded field goals before the Vols got Tereshinski again.  They entered the fourth quarter trailing 27-24, but driving.

The Vols finally got the lead on a TD pass, and Georgia would probably like to forget most of what happened next.

The Dawgs went three and out, and the Vols blocked the punt and recovered it for a touchdown (and the cover of Sports Illustrated).

Then Georgia completed the special teams madness by running the ensuing kickoff back for a touchdown.  At 38-33, there was still plenty of game left.

But from there, the Vols put the hammer down: touchdown, fumble, touchdown, interception.  A game that Georgia led 24-7 turned into a spectacular Vol victory and 51 points against the nation's best defense, featuring two kick returns, a blocked punt, a 35-point turnaround and 84 total points.

 

7. 1998: No. 10 Tennessee 34 - No. 17 Syracuse 33 (Syracuse)

This game is historically significant for the year it takes place in, but it is still an outstanding football game in any year, especially for a season opener.  In Tee Martin's starting debut, the Vols built a 24-13 lead behind Jamal Lewis but couldn't hold off Donovan McNabb, who finished with 300 yards.

The 'Cuse took the lead 33-31 before the Vols used a fortuitous pass interference call to set up a Jeff Hall game-winning field goal.  More on this game here.

 

6. 1998: No. 1 Tennessee 28 - No. 10 Arkansas 24 (Knoxville)

The definitive '98 game that saw Anthony Lucas and the undefeated Hogs build a 21-3 lead on the No. 1 Vols in their first week at that position before Tennessee started the comeback.  The second half included a critical blocked field goal, a botched punt for a safety, a big Arkansas stop on fourth down, Clint Stoerner's fumble, and Travis Henry doing the rest for the Vol win.  More on this game here.

 

5. 1995: No. 8 Tennessee 30 - Georgia 27 (Knoxville)

Any thoughts the Vols had of disposing of an unranked Georgia team were erased by Robert Edwards, who was on pace to have the greatest day by an RB against the Vol defense in history before he got hurt in the third quarter (with 15 carries for 155 yards).  His score off the opening kickoff gave Georgia confidence and a 7-0 lead.

Not to be outdone, sophomore Peyton Manning led the Vols right downfield on their first drive and ran (yes, ran) for a score to tie the game.  The Vols took a 14-10 lead in the second quarter, but Georgia simply wouldn't go away.  The Vols led 20-17 before Georgia scored on the drive that would end Edwards' day but gave UGA a 24-20 lead.

With :35 to play in the third quarter, Manning hit Joey Kent on play action to put the Vols back in front, 27-24.  Georgia would threaten in the red zone but couldn't get in without Edwards.  Instead they hit a field goal to tie the game at 27-27 with 4:51 to play.

Then Manning threw one of his four interceptions—not on the day, but for the entire season—and Georgia had the ball at the Vol 35 with 2:25 to play.  But again, there was no running game without Edwards.  There was also no overtime in 1995, so as the clock ticked, Georgia was thinking about a tie as the worst possible option.

When Brice Hunter dropped a third down pass, Georgia was left with a 53-yard field goal with 1:34 to play.

The kick went wide right, and now the Vols had life.

On the first play, Jay Graham broke two tackles on a screen pass and went 28 yards to instantly put Tennessee in field goal range.  The Vols would get another first down to set up freshman Jeff Hall with :15 to play.  From 34 yards, Hall snuck it inside the upright, and the Vols survived 30-27.

 

4. 1992: No. 24 Tennessee 34 - No. 14 Georgia 31 (Athens)

All the way down at number four is a game, like No. 2 on yesterday's heartbreak list, that I didn't think would ever be topped.

In the first year of the new divisional format, the Tennessee/Georgia game instantly moved from a once-a-decade meeting to an annual rivalry—and this Georgia team was loaded: Eric Zeier, Garrison Hearst, Andre Hastings, and Shannon Mitchell.  The Vols had graduated most of the talent from their 1989-1991 run where they went 29-6-2 and won the SEC Championship twice.

What's more, Johnny Majors was in the hospital, and young interim Phillip Fulmer was coaching in his first big game.  Sophomore Heath Shuler and the Vols were heavy underdogs down between the hedges.

Georgia fumbled the opening kickoff, but the Vols only got three points.  After the teams traded field goals, Garrison Hearst found the end zone to give UGA a 10-6 lead.  When the Vols scored just before the half to make it 13-10, things looked good, but Georgia converted a 3rd-and-23 on a deep bomb from Zeier to Hastings to give them the locker room lead.

People who think Tennessee's been running the same offense since the late '70s should remember that the Vols were running lots of power I with the inexperienced Shuler in this game.  The Vols grabbed a 20-17 lead and Georgia kept turning it over, four in total, heading to the fourth quarter.

Heath Shuler scrambled for 40 yards on third down to put the Vols in position, then took it in himself on a draw for a score that gave the Vols a 27-17 lead.  It wasn't safe.

Two plays after fumbling out of bounds, Garrison Hearst took a simple counter play 60 yards to put the Dawgs right back in it, 27-24.  To further demonstrate Hearst's ability, despite the fact that you've got Zeier and Hastings, on 3rd-and-10 from the 17 on their next drive, what does Georgia do?

Straight up the middle with Hearst, who goes the distance with a wicked stiff arm, and behind his running the Dawgs are back in front 31-27 with under 6:00 to play.  Give three TDs and 161 yards on the day to Hearst.

Heath Shuler led Tennessee downfield but was sacked at the 40-yard line.  After an incomplete pass, the Vols faced 4th-and-14 with 2:15 to play.

The Vols suddenly went from power I to five wide, and Shuler threw a bullet to seldom-used Ronald Davis for 25 yards.  Shuler threw another strike to J.J. McClesky at the four-yard line and then took it in himself for the score.  14 plays, 80 yards, 34-31 Vols—but with :50 to play, we still weren't done.

From the 10-yard line, Zeier fired complete to the 28, then on one of the greatest roller coaster plays in Tennessee history, Zeier dodged a sack twice and then found Hastings at the Georgia 45.  Hastings broke two tackles and went upfield to the Tennessee 35, but he was hit from behind on the second tackle and fumbled.  The Vols jumped on it, and with :17 to play they had sealed the win.

It was an incredible individual day from Zeier, Hearst, and Shuler.  569 yards of offense for Georgia...six turnovers.

 

3. 2007: No. 19 Tennessee 52 - Kentucky 50 (4 OT—Lexington)

Unlike Tennessee's six-overtime affair with Arkansas in '02 and the five OTs they played with Alabama the next year, this game was also very good in regulation.

A Tennessee win would secure the SEC East title.  A loss would put Georgia in Atlanta and give Kentucky their first win over the Vols since 1984.  Tennessee looked to put it away early, scoring on the first play from scrimmage on a dump pass to Arian Foster.  Then the Vols used a healthy dose of the tight end to set up another score and a 14-0 lead that had everyone in Orange breathing easy.

A missed field goal opened the door for UK, who scored early in the second.  Down 17-7 late in the quarter, UK caught a break with an interception, but then Andre Woodson was picked off on the very next play, and the Vols went for the throat, scoring to take a 24-7 lead into the locker room.

At halftime, I said "Wait 'til basketball season" to just about everyone wearing blue who looked at me for more than two seconds in the upper deck at Commonwealth Stadium.

UK opened the third quarter by driving 80 yards in 14 plays to make it 24-14.  They got the ball back but fumbled, and UT capitalized, again putting the Vols up by 17 and again causing little to no stress.

But Kentucky responded quickly to make it 31-21 heading to the fourth.  Ainge was intercepted, but Kentucky got nothing.  The Vols drove to the UK 30 but turned it over on downs.  The Cats found the end zone again to make it 31-28, and when the Vols went three and out, all of a sudden we were sweating in the 30-degree temps.

But Woodson was picked off again, and all seemed well.  However, again the Vols couldn't get a single first down and punted Kentucky back to their own eight-yard line with 3:32 to play.  I looked at my friend and said, "If they drive 92 yards in 3:32 to beat us, we don't deserve to be champions."

Instead, they drove 91 yards.  On the way, they converted on 3rd-and-11, 2nd-and-15, 3rd-and-15 with :38 to play, and then picked up 23 yards on the very next play to set up 1st-and-goal at the six with :22 to play.

A pass interference call in the end zone made it first and goal at the two.  Rafael Little ran for no gain and UK called their final time out with :08 to play.  Then Andre Woodson dropped a shotgun snap, rolled out, and barely missed his man.  UK elected to kick the field goal, and off we went to overtime.

After a relatively tame start to OT where both teams scored a touchdown, in the second OT Ainge was intercepted and Kentucky lined up to kick the game winner from 35 yards off the foot of Lonas Sieber, a Knoxville native.  With Kentucky on the precipice of their first win over the Vols in 22 years and Georgia on the verge of Atlanta...

...the Vols blocked the kick, and we played on.

Two touchdowns and two missed conversions in the third OT led to number four, where the Vols scored from the 40-yard line and got the two.  Kentucky scored, but Andre Woodson was sacked from behind on the two-point conversion.

Tennessee escaped as SEC East Champions.  The stats: 102 total points, 1,084 yards of total offense, and a title for the Vols.

 

2. 2004: No. 13 Tennessee 30 - No. 11 Florida 28 (Knoxville)

New names were writing themselves into the Tennessee/Florida rivalry: Chris Leak was the starter for Florida, while freshmen Erik Ainge and Brent Schaeffer got the nod for the Vols.  This was simply a spectacular back and forth football game with something eventful on almost every drive.

Off a Tennessee fumble on their opening drive, the Gators went down and scored.  Then Tennessee kept it simple and went 12 plays, all runs, for 80 yards behind Cedric Houston, Gerald Riggs, and Brent Schaeffer for the tying score.  A poor decision by Leak led to an interception, and an Erik Ainge TD pass to tight end Justin Reed gave the Vols a second quarter lead.

The Vols pinned Florida at the three, but that didn't stop Leak, who took Florida 97 yards to tie the score at 14-14.  When Ainge was intercepted, the Gators scored again to take a 21-14 lead into the locker room.

In the third quarter, the Vols drove to the Gator 15 and fumbled.  Florida drove to 1st-and-goal but missed a field goal that would've given them a critical two-possession lead.  In response, with the freshman Ainge under center, the Vols drove an absurd 14 plays and 96 yards, finishing with one of the most beautiful "at the pylon" TD passes in Tennessee history as Ainge hit Bret Smith.

The teams traded punts before Leak went deep and Vol DB Brandon Johnson mistimed it, and just like that Florida regained a 28-21 lead.  But the Vols were immediately equal to the task, going 80 yards in 11 plays, finishing on a Jayson Swain TD.  All that was needed was the extra point to tie...

...but James Wilhoit inexplicably missed it.

Reeling, the Vol defense gave up a first down but then stiffened, halting the Gators at the 39-yard line and getting a crucial break from the officials, who hit Florida with a 15-yard personal foul penalty on a "second guy gets caught" scenario and then failed to restart the game clock.

Tennessee got the ball back with :43 to play at their own 38-yard line.  Ainge needed two completions, and he got them both to Chris Hannon, for 21 and for seven, to set up James Wilhoit again from 50 yards.

Wilhoit, who couldn't make an extra point, drilled a 50-yarder to give the Vols a 30-28 win—the last time Tennessee has beaten Florida.

 

1. 2001: No. 4 Tennessee 34 - No. 2 Florida 32 (Gainesville)

Two of the best teams in the country, with a (supposed) trip to the National Championship on the line, surpassed the hype and played the greatest minute-for-minute football game I've ever seen.

Tennessee hadn't won in Gainesville in 30 years.  The game was moved from September to December following 9/11, which only increased the drama.

Best stat I can use to tell you about the awesomeness of this game?  Total punts: three.

The Vol defense held on the opening drive (punt number one), then took a lengthy trip downfield to get a 7-0 lead.  On the ensuing drive, a Rex Grossman pass was deflected by Al Haynesworth and intercepted, leading to a Travis Stephens score, and the Vols led 14-0 in The Swamp.

Putting to rest any Vol dreams, Grossman went deep to Reche Caldwell, setting up a QB sneak for a score to make it 14-7.  On the first play of the next drive, Jason Witten fumbled, and all those bad Swamp vibes were alive and well.  The Vol defense held, Florida kicked a field goal, and it was 14-10.

On the next drive, Witten again was the culprit, as a ball off his hands was intercepted.  When the Gators scored on a pass from Grossman to Jabar Gaffney on the very next play, that 14-0 lead was a distant memory at 17-14 Gators, and that old familiar feeling of "if it can go wrong, in Gainesville it will" was fully present.

When the Vols missed a field goal and Jeff Chandler made another one heading to the locker room, it was 20-14 Florida—and hope was on life support.

Enter Travis Stephens.

Off the second half kickoff, Stephens burst through the left side and went racing downfield, putting Jabari Davis in position to punch it in on a five-play drive that quickly put Tennessee back in front 21-20.  Hope had a pulse.

The Gators answered with three to retake the lead, then intercepted Casey Clausen on his only poor throw of the night.  The Gators committed to shutting down Donte' Stallworth and Kelley Washington, which they did.  But slot man Bobby Graham found room for seven catches and 71 yards, and Clausen played within himself all night outside of this one throw.

Leading 23-21, Florida drove off the pick to the Vol 34 and went for it on fourth down, but Grossman was dumped by Will Overstreet for one of four Vol sacks on the night.  Tennessee went back to the run, and it worked, scoring early in the fourth (but missing the two) to take a 27-23 lead.

Florida drove downfield, where Grossman was again sacked and fumbled.  However, he was ruled to have been throwing the ball, so it went down as an incomplete pass and Florida kicked another field goal.  Tennessee still led 27-26 and was just trying to hang on.

That's when Travis Stephens made the run, breaking through the linebackers and then absolutely destroying Guss Scott in the secondary before finally being tracked down inside the 10.  Jabari Davis finished from there, and the Vols led 34-26.  Stephens ran for a sick 226 on the night.

If you're scoring at home, that's 18 consecutive drives without a punt.  Read that again.

So then we had two in a row: another sack forced a Gator three and out.  Tennessee had the ball and an eight-point lead in the fourth quarter in The Swamp, and quite frankly they didn't know what to do.  They went backwards and punted it right back to Florida—the first and only Vol punt of the night—giving Rex Grossman one more chance.

Rexy was good for it.  Playing for the Heisman, Grossman marched the Gators 67 yards in 10 plays and just over two minutes, finishing with a Carlos Perez reception for the score with 1:10 to play.

Playing without the injured Earnest Graham and subsequently no running game, Grossman went 33 of 51 for 362 yards, one interception that wasn't his fault, and three total touchdowns.  Jabar Gaffney caught seven balls for 101 to go with Reche Caldwell's eight for 115, all this against a secondary with three future NFL players in it—unreal and incredibly impressive on offense.

But...the Gators needed the two-point conversion to tie.

Grossman got pressured again and fired away, and the ball sailed behind the intended target and out of the back of the end zone.  The Vol defense bent and bent and bent all night long, but they never fully broke and made the one play they had to make.  When John Finlayson pulled down the onside kick, unbelievably the game was over...and the Vols had won.

This game doesn't hold up as well in overall Tennessee lore because the Vols went out the very next week and blew their chance at the title by losing to LSU in Atlanta.  Steve Spurrier left for Washington soon after, and the rivalry was never really the same.

But as the capper to a decade worth of nationally relevant Tennessee/Florida bloodshed, they just don't get any better than this.

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