It may happen again Saturday afternoon at Alabama. The Vols have been given up for dead after losing 16-7 at Florida and 27-14 at home to Georgia. Certainly, Tennessee's offense showed no pulse in those dreary setbacks. Certainly, the kicking game appeared to be on a suicide mission. But just when you think the Vols are ready to go quietly, they never do. One shovel-full of dirt seems to rouse them every time.
"Our backs are to the wall, similar to the game two years ago at Miami," Vol receivers coach Pat Washington said. "We know it's going to be a dogfight. We've got to buckle up our chinstraps and be ready to fight till the end."
That strategy worked in 2003. The Vols limped into South Florida with a 4-2 record, no momentum and no apparent chance of beating the Hurricanes. But the Big Orange somehow posted a 10-6 victory that ranks with the greatest upsets in school history.
The 2002 and 2004 teams also came through with their backs to the wall. The ‘02 Vols stood 4-3 after consecutive losses to Georgia (18-13) and Alabama(34-14), the latter on their home field. Feisty South Carolina had an ambush waiting in Columbia but Tennessee escaped with an 18-10 victory.
The ‘04 team, fresh from a 34-10 home-field beat-down at the hands of Auburn, was given no chance to win at No. 3 Georgia the following week. But, appropriately riled, the Vols won 19-14.
So, the fact Tennessee staggers into Saturday's game at unbeaten and sixth-ranked Alabama with a comatose offense and a 3-2 record may actually work in the Vols' favor. Like a wounded animal, they fight the hardest when the odds are longest.
This isn't just any road game, though. Many Bama fans hate Tennessee. The Tide hasn't beaten the Vols on Alabama soil since 1991, going 0-5-1 during that span. Moreover, many Bama boosters blame Tennessee for the NCAA penalties that crippled the Tide in recent years. Those fans are starved for vengeance, so the atmosphere at Bryant-Denny Stadium will be incredibly hostile — just the way the Vols like it.
"With them in the SEC title chase and national title chase, it's going to be a fabulous atmosphere," Vol quarterback Rick Clausen said. "I'm sure the crowd doesn't like us very much, and that's fine with us."
Tennessee offensive tackle Arron Sears, an Alabama native, said Bama's players are eager to face the struggling Volunteers because they "smell blood." Clausen agrees.
"I think a lot of people do," he said. "A lot of people across the country have written us off, and that's fine by us."
No wonder. The Vols seem to show the most life when people pronounce them dead.