UT's Top 10 Season Openers

Season openers take on an interesting dimension the longer one follows Tennessee football; where once there was mostly excitement and anticipation associated with the Vols' gridiron debut, in time, strong sentiment and many memories arise along with a campaign's opening curtain.

It's with that caveat issued the staff of Rocky Top News presents the most memorable season openers in modern Tennessee football history — covering the last 40 years and the proliferation of TV broadcast which brought Big Orange football to the masses.

There are a variety of factors that make a season opener memorable. Some are good, others bad while some may relate to the first appearance of an impact athlete. We've taken all of these factors into consideration and come up with the top 10 most memorable UT openers of the last four decades. Readers will notice a discernible pattern to this process in that games against UCLA dominate the list, while stalemates are also prominent. Remember this list represents the most memorable UT season openers, not the greatest.

(No. 1) 1968: Tennessee vs. Georgia — This contest between the Vols and Dogs at Neyland Stadium was noteworthy for five reasons. It was the first significant college football game ever played on artificial surface. It was broadcast on national television (ABC) during an era when just one such game each week could boast that distinction. It featured the first African-American athlete, Tennessee wide receiver Lester McClain, to ever play in an SEC football game. It was played before the largest crowd to ever see a UT home game at that time (64,429), after an offseason addition of 6,307 seats to the upper east stands. Finally, it was a hard-fought battle that ended in a 17-17 tie after the Vols rallied for a last second touchdown behind quarterback Bubba Wyche.

(No. 2) 1985: Tennessee vs. UCLA — This game ended in a 26-26 tie but it sure seemed like a loss to the capacity crowd of over 95,000 that packed Neyland Stadium that September afternoon. The Vols led 26-10 in the last eight minutes of the game before the Bruins, led by QB Rick Neuheisel, rallied to score two touchdowns and a pair of two-point conversions to knot the count and ruin what looked to be a spectacular start by the Vols. This contest is also memorable because it featured a breakout performance by UT quarterback Tony Robinson who set a school record with 387 yards passing. However few of those yards came in the fourth quarter as the Vols went into an offensive shell attempting to protect the big lead. UT would go on to win its first SEC championship in 16 years that season and finished No. 4 nationally. UCLA was ranked No. 7 in the same poll. After the game, first-year UT athletic director Doug Dickey stated the tie would look a lot better at the end of the season. Ultimately, it may have cost Tennessee a shot at the national title and nearly 20 years later it still doesn't look any better.

(No. 3) 1998: Tennessee at Syracuse — The Vols rarely opened on the road which made the Carrier Dome an unlikely venue for a team that was thought to be in a rebuilding mode, following the loss of superstar signal caller Peyton Manning, dominating defender Leonard Little and a host of play makers. In a seesaw struggle that featured five lead changes, the Vols went on a last-ditch drive behind QB Tee Martin and won the game 34-33 on a final play field goal by Jeff Hall. Although no one knew it at the time, the rally would preserve UT's first national championship season in 47 years and best record (13-0) ever.

(No. 4) 1990: Tennessee vs. Colorado — The dirt infield of the California Angels' home park seems like a strange place for a Tennessee opening football to end, but that's exactly what happened in the by-invitation-only Pigskin Classic that hot August day in Anaheim. That's where Tennessee tailback Chuck Webb was brought down on a draw play that capped a draw game, 31-31, with UT within a chip-shot field goal from victory. Colorado would go on to be crowned co-national champion that season while UT would go on to win the SEC Championship. These gridiron heavyweights waged an epic battle in an exhilarating engagement that featured no less than 29 future NFL players.

(No. 5) 1967: Tennessee at UCLA — The Vols didn't open their season until Sept. 16 in 1967, playing the powerful Bruins led by Heisman Trophy winner Gary Beban at the Coliseum in Los Angeles. The Vols lost a heartbreaker that night, 20-16, but served notice they were once again players on the national scene for the first time since 1956. Behind the "Swamp Rat" aka Dewey Warren, Tennessee put together nine straight wins before dropping a 26-24 decision to Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. Still the Vols finished No. 2 nationally behind USC, won the SEC title and was named national champion by Litkenhous.

(No. 6) 1974: Tennessee vs. UCLA — This game didn't carry the national significance of some other meetings between these intersectional rivals, but for pure drama from first play to last it has few peers. Tennessee burst out of the gate with a 76-yard Condredge Hollaway to Stanley Morgan touchdown pass but fell behind when the artful dodger was injured and had to leave the game for X-rays. In the waning moments of the contest, Hollaway would return to a roaring crowd and lead UT to a game-tying touchdown in the fourth quarter. He scored the TD himself on a dive into the end zone over a stunned UCLA defender. By the way, the Vols had a 7-3-2 record that year after finishing the regular season with a 21-21 deadlock at Vanderbilt — thanks to more heroics by Hollaway and Larry Seivers.

(No. 7) 1987: Tennessee vs. Iowa — Two years off their memorable 1985 campaign, Tennessee was invited to play Iowa in the Kickoff Classic at East Rutherford, N.J. This one lived up to its billing as the Vols and Hawkeyes played a classic contest. The key play in UT's narrow 23-22 win was a rambling 96-yard fumble return for a touchdown by Tennessee linebacker Darrin Miller. The play represented a potential 14-point swing and will live as one of the most memorable plays in Big Orange football history.

(No. 8) 1994: Tennessee at UCLA — It's hard to forget an opener played at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena that featured four Tennessee QBs in a 25-23 setback. When two of those quarterbacks were Todd Helton and Peyton Manning making their UT debut it's unforgettable. The Vols fell behind after being blind sided by the loss of starting QB Jerry Colquitt on the season's first series, but closed with a rush despite splitting playing time between Manning, Helton and another true freshmen Brandon Stewart. Ten years later a similar scenario is being played out at quarterback. Luckily, UT opens with UNLV instead of UCLA.

(No. 9) 1980: Tennessee vs. Georgia — The Vols entered the 1980 season with high hopes after finishing 7-5 in 1979 and going to their first bowl game in five years. Tennessee was fronted by a powerful defense that included the likes of future NFL All-Pros Reggie White, Mike Cofer and Bill Bates in addition to such stalwarts as nose guard Jim Noonan and linebackers Greg Gaines and Danny Spradlin. The offense was no slouch either with stars Willie Gault, Reggie Harper, Tim Irwin and Anthony Hancock. But the premier player on the field that day was a Georgia freshmen tailback by the name of Hershel Walker who turned the tide when he entered the game and spoiled Tennessee's opener with a 16-15 win. The loss set a tone for the season as the Vols limped home with a 5-6 record. Play of the game: Walker running over Bates for a touchdown. This is a game UT fans would rather forget but can't.

(No. 10) 1996: Tennessee vs. UNLV — Fresh off an 11-1 mark and No. 2 national finish, the Vols entered the 1996 campaign with a power-packed lineup and ultra high expectations. Nothing that happened in this opener discouraged fans, as Tennessee scored a 62-3 victory over the overmatched Rebels. Taking the field for the Vols that day eight years ago on offense were Manning, Jay Graham, Marcus Nash, Chad Clifton, Robert Poole and Trey Teague. The defense featured Leonard Little, Al Wilson, Jonathan Brown and Terry Fair. UT would go on to a 10-2 record that year and outscored opponents by 437 to 185. How the Vols managed to lose to Memphis that year is a question for the ages.

By the way, the 40-year span examined above includes the complete UT head coaching careers of Doug Dickey, Bill Battle, Johnny Majors and Phillip Fulmer. Dickey was 4-1-1 in opening games, Battle was 5-1-1, Majors was 6-6-3 and Fulmer is 11-1.


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