Tennessee Football’s 10 Most Heartbreaking Losses, 1989-2007 (The Hogs made the list twice!!) Part 2

Former UT quarterback Peyton Manning, center, is congratulated by head coach Phil Fulmer as his jersey is retired Saturday before the South Carolina game in 2005.

Photo by Saul Young

Former UT quarterback Peyton Manning, center, is congratulated by head coach Phil Fulmer as his jersey is retired Saturday before the South Carolina game in 2005.

The hogs made the list twice:

Tennessee Football’s 10 Most Heartbreaking Losses, 1989-2007


(Senior Analyst) on August 12, 2008

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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).

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.

University of tennessee football Coach Phillip Fulmer signals for a time out during an October 9, 1993 game against Arkansas.


University of tennessee football Coach Phillip Fulmer signals for a time out during an October 9, 1993 game against Arkansas.

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