The Tennessee-Georgia game has all the makings of a classic SEC matchup. There is a rivalry with a championship on the line, an up-an-coming team and a defending national champion.
In fact, the UT-Georgia game is unlike any other regular season game that the Vols have been a part of in at least a quarter of a century.
The Vols are different this season. They have a different swagger, have come out of nowhere and are relevant nationally for the first time in two decades. Looking for a comparison? Good luck.
Here are some of the bigger regular season games, with one exception, that would have to rank among the top games in Tennessee football history. Keep in mind, we’re judging the games on the lead up to the game and/or the impact it had on UT’s program.
This game was moved back in the schedule because of 9/11 and was held the week before the SEC Championship Game so it had a strong playoff feel. Most thought the winner of that game would go on to beat LSU in Atlanta and advance to the Rose Bowl to play Miami.
Tennessee was a 17 1/2-point underdog so most believed the Gators would win and advance. However, the Vols ran an unusual Prowler formation on defense in which only one or two Vols actually had a hand on the ground. The Vols bounced around the line of scrimmage and confused the Gators, who probably could have just run the ball and won the game.
Nevertheless, the Vols got a career performance from running back Travis Stephens and beat the Gators in what would be former Florida coach Steve Spurrier’s last game at home as head coach. The build up was huge, much like this week’s Georgia game. The difference is Tennessee wasn’t expected to pull off the upset. Many think the Vols can do so this week, which leads to…
2001 SEC Championship Game
Technically, this is not a regular season game. However, much like the previous week, the Vols had everything to play for. The difference in the game was that most expected the Vols to easily beat LSU and some up-and-coming coach called Nick Saban.
Despite significant injuries to the Tigers in the first half, the Vols couldn’t stop the Matt Mauck’s quarterback draw. That is likely the most costly loss in Tennessee football history. The Vols were visibly stunned during post-game interviews and let a chance to play for the national championship slip through their fingers.
Most people forget that Arkansas was undefeated before the Vols hosted the Razorbacks. That game felt like a playoff matchup before there were even playoffs in college football. Both teams were vying for at least an SEC Championship and, if the cards fell correctly, which they did for Tennessee, a national championship.
Thank Arkansas coach Houston Nutt and quarterback Clint Stoerner for allowing that game to live up to the hype. The unexplainable decision to try to throw the ball late led to an even more unexplainable decision for Stoerner to try and brace himself with the ball as if he were a stumbling, old man with a cane. The Vols would win that game thanks to the Stoerner gaff and the rest is UT championship history.
If you recall, this was supposed to be the season in which Peyton Manning finally got the Florida curse off of his resume. If you’re looking for hype, this would certainly compare to this week’s Georgia game. However, the game was in September so there was time for either team to make up ground on the national competition before the end of the season.
Tennessee or Georgia could still lose this game and make the College Football Playoff. However, they’d need some help and there’s not much football left to be played. This week’s game being later in the season gives it a much different, do-or-die feel.
I have left out the Alabama game earlier this season because, other than News Sentinel columnist John Adams, I don’t know of anyone who actually thought Tennessee would win. I also discounted the 1998 Florida game because virtually no one thought the Vols would win without Manning. Both games will go down in folklore because of how they played out.
That’s what makes this Tennessee-Georgia game so unique. Many think the Vols can win, it’s THE marquee matchup in the nation and there’s a championship on the line.
Take note of these two things:
1. There hasn’t been a game of this magnitude in 20 years, despite what former Tennessee coach Butch Jones might have you think.
2. These games are completely unpredictable. The Vols won one game (Florida in 2001) that they probably shouldn’t have, won one game (Arkansas in 1998) that almost slipped away, lost one game (LSU in the SEC Championship Game in 2001) that they should have won and pulled off one of the most memorable wins (Florida in 1998) in program history.
In other words, predictions are fun, but ultimately they probably don’t account for much. The prelude before the game is a known quantity and if there has ever been this much hype before a Tennessee football game, I haven’t seen it.