1980: Tennessee appeared to have the game in hand, then Georgia coach Vince Dooley put in a freshman running back named Herschel Walker, who rallied the Dawgs from a 0-15 deficit to a 16-15 victory. Walker ran over Vol safety Bill Bates on a touchdown burst that seemingly has been replayed a million times.
Tennessee actually had a very good team in ’80 but that heart-breaking loss, coupled with an equally devastating 20-17 home-field loss to Southern Cal the following week, sent the season into a downward spiral that concluded with a 5-6 record.
1985: Tony Robinson was college football’s premier passer in 1985, and he scorched UCLA for 387 yards in guiding Tennessee to a 26-8 fourth-quarter lead in the ’85 opener. John Majors decided his team had enough points to win at this point, so Robinson merely handed off on the Vols’ final two possessions of the game. The Bruins promptly recorded two stops, two touchdowns, two 2-point conversions and stunned the crowd by slipping out of Neyland Stadium with a 26-26 tie.
Now for the silver lining: Freed to fire at will in Game 2 against top-ranked Auburn, “T Rob” responded by passing the Vols to a 38-20 victory that was far more lopsided than the score suggests. Sports Illustrated staffed the game, expecting to run a cover shot of Bo Jackson on its next issue. Instead, it featured Robinson.
1989: Mindful that No. 6 UCLA was next on the schedule, Tennessee’s battle plan against Game 1 foe Colorado State was so conservative that fans must have thought Rush Limbaugh was calling the plays. Giving new depth to the term “vanilla,” the Vols struggled to a lackluster 17-14 victory. “We didn’t want to show much,” offensive coordinator Walt Harris told me following the game. “And we almost didn’t show enough.”
After nearly backfiring in the opener, the strategy wound up working. Tennessee flew to Pasadena and one week later shocked the sixth-ranked Bruins 24-6.
All’s well that ends well, I guess.
1990: No. 8 Tennessee and No. 5 Colorado met in the Pigskin Classic at Anaheim, and the game lived up to its hype, ending in a dramatic 31-31 tie. Tennessee was approaching field-goal range in the closing seconds but Chuck Webb, the greatest running back I’ve ever seen, was tackled inbounds on the final play and the clocked expired before the Vols could line up for the potential game-winning kick.
Webb tore his ACL in Game 2 against Pacific and missed the rest of the ’90 season. He turned pro following his redshirt sophomore season but the surgically repaired knee prevented him from fulfilling the promise he showed prior to the injury.
Despite the Game 1 tie and the Game 2 loss of Webb, Tennessee rallied to go 9-2-2, win the SEC championship and beat Virginia (featuring a wideout named Derek Dooley) in the Sugar Bowl. Meanwhile, Colorado rallied from the tie to go 11-1-1 and win the Associated Press national title.
1994: After patiently waiting his turn behind Andy Kelly and Heath Shuler, redshirt senior Jerry Colquitt finally made his first start as Tennessee’s quarterback in the ’94 opener at UCLA. It lasted seven plays.
On the Vols’ opening possession Colquitt tore an ACL at the conclusion of a nice scramble, ending his senior season and his football career on a gut-wrenching note. I’ve never felt sorrier for anyone in my life.
The rest of the game proved to be almost as discouraging as Colquitt’s injury. Todd Helton, Branndon Stewart and some kid named Peyton Manning all got turns at quarterback but UCLA eked out a 25-23 victory.
Having built its offense around Colquitt, Tennessee was in scramble mode for weeks. Finally, with the Vols limping along at 1-3, head coach Phillip Fulmer handed the reins to Manning. He won six of seven starts to conclude the season and the rest, as they say, is history.
Trailing 33-31 at Syracuse with 1:48 left in the opener, Tennessee faced a fourth-and-seven at its own 35-yard line. Tee Martin, Manning’s successor at quarterback, was on the verge of losing his starting debut as he faded to pass.
Sophomore receiver Cedrick Wilson broke open momentarily, so Martin fired in his direction. As the ball hurtled toward Wilson, so did Syracuse cornerback Will Allen. With the ball knocked loose by the collision, Wilson looked to the nearest official in hopes of getting an interference call. When the official waved his arms to signal “incomplete pass” Wilson’s heart sank … but only momentarily. Back judge Lee Dyer threw a late flag, giving Tennessee the ball at midfield and a fresh set of downs.
The Vols capitalized on the reprieve when Jeff Hall booted a 27-yard field goal as time expired to produce a thrilling 34-33 victory. Spurred by that dramatic ending, the Big Orange began a roll that would produce a 13-0 season and its first national title since 1951.
2005: Coming off a 38-7 Cotton Bowl beat-down of Texas A&M to end the 2004 season, the Vols opened ‘05 ranked No. 3 nationally. What no one outside of the squad knew, however, was that the team was divided by a quarterback controversy. Some of the players and coaches wanted Erik Ainge, the strong-armed sophomore. The rest wanted Rick Clausen, MVP of the Cotton Bowl.
Ainge started the opener but played poorly as Tennessee eked out a 17-10 defeat of lowly UAB. That escalated the quarterback controversy – dividing the fan base, as well as the team – and turned a season that began with high hopes and a No. 3 ranking into a nightmare.
Ainge and Clausen took turns running the show the rest of the way but neither proved effective. Result: The Vols averaged just 18.6 points per game en route to a 5-6 disaster that cost offensive coordinator Randy Sanders his job.
2006: Although the Big Orange was coming off a losing season in 2005, David Cutcliffe’s return to the offensive coordinator role had Vol fans pumped heading into Game 1. Tennessee was a three-point home underdog against No. 9 Cal, which seemed to fire up the fan base even more.
The crowd went crazy when the Vols ran through the “T” and grew even louder when a Tennessee player hit Golden Bear tight end Craig Stephens so hard on the opening kickoff that Stephens missed the rest of the game.
Ainge, coming off a horrendous sophomore season, opened Tennessee’s first possession with a 41-yard completion to Robert Meachem. By this point Neyland Stadium was ready to explode. The rabid crowd intimidated the Golden Bears and invigorated the Vols, who raced to a 35-0 lead before clearing the bench and allowing Cal to make the final score (35-18) somewhat respectable. I’m convinced Tennessee would’ve beaten any team in college football that night.
Cutcliffe’s impact was clearly evident. After an awful 2005 season that saw him complete just 45.5 percent of his passes, Ainge threw for four touchdowns and nearly 300 yards in the ’06 opener. Moreover, a Vol offense that mustered just one scrimmage play of 40-plus yards in 2005 hung four of them on Cal in the opener.
To this day I have never seen a crowd impact a football game to the degree Tennessee’s did that fateful evening in Knoxville.
2008: Debuting the “Clawfense” of new offensive coordinator Dave Clawson, the Vols were a slight favorite in their opener at UCLA. Tennessee defied logic by virtually abandoning the run game, even though Arian Foster averaged 7.4 yards per carry (13 for 96) and Montario Hardesty averaged 5.5 yards per rush (12 for 66).
Instead of “pounding the rock,” Tennessee put the game in the hands of first-year starting quarterback Jonathan Crompton, who uncorked 41 passes. He completed just 19 with two interceptions. Still, Crompton looked All-World compare to UCLA counterpart Kevin Craft, who was picked off four times by an opportunistic John Chavis defense.
Bob Neyland had to be turning over in his grave, given the performance of Tennessee’s kicking game. A blocked-punt return gave UCLA the game’s opening score, and the Vols averaged just 33.4 yards on the punts that weren’t blocked. Meanwhile, Daniel Lincoln missed three of four field-goal tries, including a 34-yarder that would’ve forced the game into a second overtime. Result: UCLA won 27-24.
This game proved to be a harbinger of things to come. Tennessee went on to average a pitiful 17.3 points per game, the lowest total since Doug Dickey’s first Vol squad averaged 8.0 points in 1964. The offensive train wreck cost head coach Phillip Fulmer his job.
Bottom line: They say "It's not how you start; it's how you finish." That's true. But sometimes how you start charts a path that determines how you finish.