Certainly there are good examples of both experiences in UT's illustrious football history — some tortuous, some divine. However, there was rarely anything ambivalent about a tie game, regardless of how unassuming it looked tacked onto the end of a season's record.
In time, as with the way of all bygone things, the tie game will appear as little more than a quaint footnote to football's past. Eventually an asterisk will be required to explain ties to those young fans inclined to explore the college football archives.
In fact, tie games were usually ferocious battles between highly motivated teams that fought to the final gun. The teams that lost the lead were usually the most disappointed while the teams that came back were normally relieved, if not downright giddy, to avoid defeat.
Some teams actually benefited greatly from deadlocks and were delighted to get one. Reference former Auburn head coach Pat Dye aka "Pat Tie" whose motto was: it's not whether you win of lose, nor how you play the game.
Ties were far from insignificant, as titles and all their treasures would often one fall to one side despite the seemingly perfect balance of a even score and record. For instance, Notre Dame won the 1966 national title over Michigan State despite tying the Spartans 10-10 and sharing 9-0-1 records.
Sure, tie games often failed to bring closure to a game or a season, but they sparked debate and interest. The era of overtimes has probably made for more exciting finishes, but they've also shown that perhaps some games are better left undecided, as opposed to say seven overtimes. Such marathon affairs — and Tennessee has won two of the longest OT contests ever played — create a fatigue factor that can up the injury ante and deflate teams beyond all proper proportion. So, although overtime does bring closure, it can also bring devastation.
With that bit of editorial comment aside, let's examine the best and worst of Tennessee ties. For purposes of putting this piece into something approaching contemporary perspective, I've limited the rankings to cover games played over the last 50 years.
No. 1 — Tennessee 7, Alabama 7 in 1965. This contest put UT football back on the map as the Vols tied the Tide in Birmingham and went on to post their best record in nine years, finishing 8-1-2 and No. 7 nationally in Doug Dickey's second season. Bama went on to win the national title that year with a 9-1-1 record. The significance of this equalizing achievement is often overlooked in light of the tragic deaths of three UT assistant coaches (Charley Rash, Bill Majors and Bob Jones) two days later in an auto-train accident. By the way, Tennessee also tied Auburn that year 13-13 and only lost a 14-13 decision to Ole Miss.
No. 2 — Tennessee 17, Georgia 17 in 1968. This game qualifies at the second spot because it ushered in the era of turf warfare in college football as the first NCAA game ever played on an artificial surface. Additionally, the Vols rallied in the final minute of play to knot the score. Also significant was the fact this game was played before the largest crowd to ever see a Tennessee home game as offseason expansion raised the capacity at Neyland Stadium to 64,429. This also marked the first SEC varsity football game in which an African-American appeared, as UT wide receiver Lester McClain completed the historic feat.
No. 3 — Tennessee 3, LSU 3 in 1964. This was another statement game and a foreshadowing of the Vols return to gridiron glory. Although UT finished with a 4-5-1 record that year, the tie against the No. 7 Tigers at Baton Rogue opened some eyes as well as the minds of Vol faithful that couldn't get used to that darn newfangled T formation. The next week Tennessee went to Grant Field and upset highly favored Georgia Tech 22-14.
No. 4 — Tennessee 6, Georgia Tech 6 in 1985. This was one of two ties UT had in 1985, including a 26-26 deadlock in the season opener against UCLA that falls into our worst tie category. But on this fourth Saturday on a cold night in October, Tennessee's offense was struggling behind Daryl Dickey who was filling in for injured gunslinger Tony Robinson. The talented Robinson was lost for the season with a torn knee ligament in the prior game against Alabama, and Dickey stepped in as a fifth-year senior without a single career start. Despite that lack of game experience, he rallied the Vols late in this contest and Carlos Reveiz tied the game with a 51-yard field goal as time ran out. The Vols would go on to win their last six games and their first SEC championship in 16 years. The 1985 campaign was capped by the now famous 35-7 mauling of Miami in the Sugar Bowl.
No. 5 — Wouldn't you know it? Our No. 5 slot on Tennessee's greatest tie list features a tie between the first game of the 1974 season and the last game of the 1974 season. In the first game, Condredge Holloway returned from the hospital in the fading minutes of the fourth quarter against UCLA; his tear-away jersey streaming behind, as he raced back into the game to the tumult of a packed house that now measured 70,650 after the addition of the upper deck of the south stands. Holloway put the exclamation on the exciting rally with a leap into the end zone over a pair of bewildered Bruin defenders as the Vols knotted the count at 17.
The last game of 1974, played in a steady rain at Dudley Stadium in Nashville, wasn't nearly as exciting, but it did feature more heroics from Holloway who found Larry Seivers for both a touchdown and tying two-point conversion to allow the Vols to escape with a 21-21 tie against Vanderbilt. Okay I know what you're thinking: What's so great about tying Vanderbilt? UT has only lost to its intrastate rival twice in the last 43 years. If you can recall either of those infamous setbacks, you won't have to ask why? If you don't remember either of those losses... well take my word for it — you don't ever won't to lose to Vanderbilt. Besides that tie enabled Tennessee to finish 7-3-2 and No. 20 in the final AP Poll. What's so great about finishing No. 20? Simple: it didn't happen again for another 11 years.
In part two of this tantalizing look at ties in UT history, we'll look at some of the worse deadlocks the Vols have ever experienced. By the way, can you recall the last time the Vols played to a tie? Well, technically, it was in 1990 when UT and Auburn played to a 26-26 final.
Actually, it was 1993 when Tennessee blew a late lead in Birmingham and was tied by the Crimson Tide 17-17. However, the decision was later changed to a forfeit because Alabama was found to be in violation of NCAA rules that season.
We may not have tie games in college football any longer, but it seems some things never change.