Tennessee-Memphis: "Remember 1996" Is Vols' Rallying Cry

Ben Garrett@benwgarrettCorrespondent INovember 3, 2009

GLENDALE, AZ - MARCH 26:  The mascot of the Memphis Tigers performs during the game against the Missouri Tigers in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament at the University of Phoenix Stadium on March 26, 2009 in Glendale, Arizona.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

It should be 21-0.

That's not a score; it's Tennessee's record in its series with Memphis.

Or at least it's what the series record should be.

Instead, there was 1996. A November evening in the Liberty Bowl that folks on neither side of the Tennessee River will ever forget.

On the right were the good guys. Ranked No. 6 in the nation, Tennessee was coming off conference wins against Alabama and South Carolina and appeared to be on cruise control. There was still reason to hope for an at-large Bowl Alliance berth.

On the left were the bad guys. Memphis. In 1811, an earthquake caused the Mississippi River to flow backwards and create Reelfoot Lake. Vols fans hope the next one causes "The Big Muddy" to shift eastward and move Memphis into Arkansas.

All was well in the Volunteer State heading into that Nov. 9, 1996, meeting in Memphis. Tennessee had won each of its previous 15 meetings against the Tigers. On just one occasion during that four decade span had Memphis come within a touchdown of beating the Vols.

Oh, and Tennessee had Heisman Trophy candidate Peyton Manning at quarterback. Not to mention the fact that the Vols were 41-1 in November games dating back to 1985, their only loss coming against top-ranked Notre Dame in 1990.

But on that night, before the largest crowd to ever watch Memphis play in its home stadium, the Tigers stunned the Vols 21-17 as a CBS audience looked on.

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For Memphis fans, the feeling was euphoria. It was perhaps the greatest sports moment in the city's history at that time, and might still be.

For Tennessee fans, there were a lot of words to describe the mood. But perhaps the best way to sum it up is to take your finger and put it against your tongue, as far back as you can reach. If you're a Vols fan, it still tastes bitter right back there when you think about Chris Powers' touchdown catch with 34 seconds remaining, doesn't it?

You bet it does. It also causes an involuntary gag reflex, which aptly describes the reaction of the Vol Nation in the aftermath of that game 13 years ago.

Tennessee fans thought they had experienced the low of lows earlier in the 1996 season. In a game billed as the "Game of the Century," No. 4 Florida traveled to Neyland Stadium and jumped to a 35-0 lead over the No. 2 Vols before the orange-clad faithful inside Neyland Stadium had a chance to sing "Rocky Top" for the first time.

That game ended respectably enough, a 35-29 loss, but cost Tennessee its national championship aspirations. And, quite possibly, cost Peyton Manning a trip to New York's Downtown Athletic Club at season's end.

Seven weeks later, Vols fans were learning what bitter disappointment really was, as Memphis fans tore down the goal posts and celebrated their first-ever football win over the state's land-grand institution. Florida was accepted; maybe even expected. But this? This was Memphis. Tiger High .

"Orange crushed," the Memphis Commercial Appeal's headline crowed.

Phillip Fulmer said later that evening it was "the most disappointing game I have coached." Manning was a little more blunt: "They just flat whipped us."

And, yet, if instant replay had been a part of the college game way back in 1996, Memphis fans would never have been able to purchase commemorative pieces of the ill-fated goal posts, and state legislators in West Tennessee wouldn't have been able to call for the Tennessee General Assembly to pass a resolution honoring the Tigers' win.

Because it wouldn't have happened.

Qadry Anderson's pass to Powers in the final minute went down as the game winner. But for an improbable kick return by Kevin Cobb, the Tigers wouldn't even have been in position to win the game on that final drive.

With Tennessee leading 14-7 in the third quarter, Cobb returned a kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown after somehow eluding a tackle attempt by Craig King. Kicker Jeff Hall would prove invaluable to the Vols' national championship run two years later, but on that play, he watched as Cobb ran by him. Because he thought the play was dead.

And it should've been. Replay showed that Cobb's elbow and forearm hit the ground as he spun out of King's grasp. By NCAA rules, the play should've been dead at the Memphis 25-yard-line. And on a day when the Tiger offense amassed just 152 total yards, the last-minute heroics wouldn't have been possible.

"It took a lot of guts for the officials not to blow that down," Memphis coach Rip Scherer said.

Indeed it did. Because the final 75 yards of the 95-yard return were illegal. Had it been Lane Kiffin instead of Phillip Fulmer, and Mike Slive instead of Roy Kramer, Kiffin would have probably stomped all over the now-infamous SEC Bylaw 10.5.4 and Slive's ensuing pucker would've been so intense that he could whistle "Rocky Top" and "Go Tigers Go" at the same time.

Instead, the only replay was for the benefit of the television viewing audience, and Memphis tied the game at 14 and set the stage for the heroics to come an hour or so later.

But, to be fair, Cobb's kick return was only one play among many—even if it was as illegal as a handgun on Beale Street. Manning connected on 23 of 40 passes for 298 yards, but threw two interceptions—one of which was returned 76 yards by the Tigers. The Vols' rushing attack was inept, as Memphis recorded 16 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. And Anderson led the Tigers' down the field in the waning minutes—completing a 41-yard pass to set up the winning touchdown pass—on a gimpy ankle.

Manning's assessment—"they just flat whipped us"—was a fair one. And when the Vols struggled to beat the Tigers, 17-16, in Knoxville in 1999, followed by a narrow 19-17 Tennessee victory in 2000, one might've thought that Memphis had turned a corner in its rivalry with Tennessee.

But in their three meetings since, the Vols have outscored the Tigers 110-53, and all is back to normal once again in this lopsided series.

Still, if anyone in Knoxville needs a reminder of how the overlooked program to the west can wreck an otherwise enjoyable season, there is that night of infamy in Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. It should be 21-0. Instead, it's 20-1. It isn't likely to be 20-2 after this weekend. It's homecoming in Neyland Stadium, after all, and Tennessee doesn't often lose to Memphis.

Except on nights when a quarterback with a game leg, a gravity-defying kick returner and an infamous blown call make history happen.

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