Ole Miss-Tennessee: A new chapter

Ole Miss-Tennessee. <br><br> Just the mention of it conjures up several different thoughts from several groups of Ole Miss fans. I divide us into three.

Let's start with younger Ole Miss fans. For this group, the discrepancy between the two schools' football programs has been pretty wide over the years. While recently Ole Miss has made a step up, as evidenced by the Cotton Bowl victory last year and seven consecutive 7-wins or more seasons, Tennessee has been going about the business of major bowls almost every season and even a national championship in 1998.

Ole Miss and Tennessee have only played twice – 1996 in Memphis and 1997 in Knoxville – during the past 12 seasons. There were a small handful of annual rivalries that fell victim to Southeastern Conference expansion in 1992.

Auburn-Florida was one. Ole Miss-Tennessee was another.

For younger Ole Miss fans, Ole Miss playing Tennessee in football is a rare occurrence.

The next generation remembers UM-UT games back to the 1970s, maybe even the late ‘60s. Those were exciting games; many of them unforgettable.

Then there is the group who can recall the glory days for Ole Miss and even back to the days of Coaches Vaught and Neyland.

Ole Miss had never defeated Tennessee in football until 1947 and hasn't defeated the Volunteers since 1983 – 10 straight losses since ‘83.

But in the period 1947 through '83, the Rebels beat UT 18 times. The most memorable for Ole Miss has to be the 1969 game in Jackson which the Rebels won 38-0. It propelled the Rebs to the Sugar Bowl. For hype and buildup, there's never been a game quite like it in all the years Ole Miss has played.

The 1947 game was memorable to many of that era since Coach John Vaught's first Ole Miss squad signaled to the rest of the conference and the nation that it was a program to be reckoned with. A sound 43-14 defeat of Tennessee in Memphis' Crump Stadium was the exclamation point of Vaught's first season.

The Vols actually had a "down" period at the same time Ole Miss was having its best years. From 1957-66, Ole Miss was 9-1 against UT. All those games rotated between Knoxville and Memphis. A 14-13 Ole Miss win in Memphis in 1965 was played during the opening year of Memphis Memorial Stadium, now known as Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.

Another memorable Ole Miss victory was in 1973 in Jackson. Vaught, who had stepped down following the 1970 season after 24 years at the helm of UM football, had come out of retirement earlier in the season and returned to the sidelines. The Rebels needed to beat both Tennessee and Mississippi State for a winning season. They beat UT 28-18 and followed that up the next weekend with a 38-10 win over the Bulldogs.

The last Ole Miss win in the series was on a bitter cold Knoxville night in 1983, a nationally televised game. It was Billy Brewer's first season as head coach, and just like 10 years earlier, the Rebels needed wins against UT and MSU for a winning season. They got them – 13-10 over the Vols and 24-23 over State in the Immaculate Deflection game.

The 1986 and 1990 games were devastating setbacks for Ole Miss. A 1986 loss in Jackson by a 22-10 margin kept Ole Miss from winning an SEC title and playing in the Sugar Bowl. Same thing in 1990 in Memphis. A 22-13 loss kept the Rebels from winning the league title and making the accompanying trip to New Orleans for New Year's Day.

In their most recent meeting, the Rebels were competitive and trailed only 24-17 late before the Vols added another touchdown for a 31-17 win in Knoxville in 1997. Ole Miss went on to the Motor City Bowl in Detroit and an 8-4 finish.

Though there have been 60 games played in this series, the Vols will make only their third appearance to play football in Oxford Saturday night. That alone makes this one special.

In 1951, the Vols beat the Rebs 46-21 on their way to a national championship. In 1988, it was Tennessee 20, Ole Miss 12.

But this is now.

Saturday we'll renew the old series with Tennessee.

We can all reach back and recall some memorable and important games and moments with say Alabama or Georgia or Auburn over the years; there are some real moments, big wins and heartbreaking losses with those and other teams.

But it is series with LSU and Arkansas and yes Tennessee that seem to be remembered for their importance even more.

Maybe it is because 24 of the 60 games between Ole Miss and UT have been played in Memphis, and both schools claim that city as their own.

Maybe it is because of UT's Steve Kiner and his comments about Ole Miss before the teams met in 1969.

Maybe it's those disappointing losses in '86 and '90 that kept Ole Miss from being champions.

Maybe some of it has to do with the day Peyton committed to play football at Tennessee.

Or maybe it was Neyland vs. Vaught at Crump Stadium in midtown Memphis.

Or Vaught and Doug Dickey and the battles of the late ‘60s.

Or Bill Battle (remember him?) vs. Ken Cooper (remember him?) in games played in Memphis (a 23-6 UM win in '75 helped lift Ole Miss to a second-place SEC finish that season).

Or Billy Brewer vs. Johnny Majors in the ‘80s.

There is a lot of tradition and history with this series, even though Saturday will only be the third time the two programs have played in the past 13 seasons.

Now it is David Cutcliffe vs. Phillip Fulmer.

There are perhaps more ties to Tennessee, both from a coaches' and players' perspective, than any football program for Ole Miss right now.

A week ago, not too many Ole Miss people were looking forward to this encounter. A 31-28 win at South Carolina changed all that.

It's been a tough season after the high of last year and with the hopes of so many for this year.

After the 2-3 start, last Saturday put everything back on course. This Saturday the Rebels have a chance to head into the following Saturday's open date at 4-3 and with a sparkling 3-1 SEC record. Then powerful Auburn comes to Oxford.

With the caliber of competition the Rebels will face the rest of the way, things could again be tough.

But, it also could get very interesting again.

The Vols' last visit to Oxford was a 20-12 UT victory on a wet, cloudy, foggy, dark afternoon in "old" Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. There were no lights then. The place only held 42,000.

Tennessee hasn't gotten to experience "new" Ole Miss. What they will find here Saturday night will be a larger, louder, more supportive, more energized, group of Ole Miss supporters than they've ever seen.

They'll find a more beautiful stadium than they did the last time they were here. Larger. With lights. Cleaner. A place Rebel fans are proud to show off now.

An indoor practice facility and football offices/training/equipment complex as good as UT's. Maybe better.

The best tailgating atmosphere and locale in all of college football. Just check with Sports Illustrated, USA Today, ESPN, or any others you choose.

No the Rebels are not 5-1 or 6-0 and ranked in the top 10 or 15. Yes it has been a disappointing season for the most part. Until last Saturday.

Certainly the season's ultimate outcome has yet to be determined; whether or not 2004 is a success or failure is still out there somewhere.

Is it Saturday night yet?

Just one last question for you.

Are you ready?

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