Two SEC Champions square off here: the beloved '85 SugarVols face the '90 Vols, kings of strength of schedule.
1985: 9-1-2, SEC Champions, Final AP Rank #4
Johnny Majors came to Rocky Top as head coach in 1977, and it started like this: 4-7, 5-5-1, 7-5, 5-6, 8-4, 6-5-1, 9-3, 7-4-1. The Vols hadn't won the SEC since 1969, hadn't finished a season ranked since 1974, and hadn't even been in the poll since a one week stay in 1979 after beating Notre Dame in Knoxville. This is why those older than me are slower to speak of the present day as the worst of times.
The Vols lost 12 starters from a seven win team in 1984, putting expectations at zero the way the story has been told to me. The season opened with #10 UCLA coming to Knoxville, and the Vols managed a 26-26 tie. But the real stunner came the following week: Bo Jackson and #1 Auburn came to Knoxville, and left on the business end of a 38-20 beating. Bo Knows 80 yards. Sports Illustrated's cover got to know Vol quarterback Tony Robinson.
The Vols returned to the polls at #16, survived against Wake Forest 31-29 the following week, then lost in Gainesville to #7 Florida 17-10. But Tennessee recaptured the SEC lead with a thrilling 16-14 win over #15 Alabama in Birmingham, the last of four straight in the series for the Vols. Dale Jones - who was to 1985 what Al Wilson was to 1998 if you're unfamiliar - helped save the day with a spectacular batted ball interception. But the Vols would lose Tony Robinson for the season to a knee injury in the game, forcing backup Daryl Dickey - son of the former coach and now AD - to take control.
It was a rough start for Dickey - a 6-6 tie with Georgia Tech followed - but Tennessee then began to roll. The Vols finished their usual November run by beating Ole Miss, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt by a combined 106-14 to wrap up the conference title.
The Vols moved to #8 in the polls, but standing in the way in New Orleans was #2 Miami. This was The U at its most powerful - Miami lost to #5 Florida in the opener, but beat #3 Oklahoma, #10 Florida State, and was last seen destroying Notre Dame 58-7. The Canes had Vinny Testeverde, Michael Irvin, and Jimmy Johnson. Miami scored first to make it 7-0 and it looked like the Vols would have to submit to what everyone thought was coming anyway.
Then Tennessee scored the next 35 points.
The Vols made it 14-7 at halftime and then rolled in the third quarter, including a 60 yard Jeff Powell touchdown run to make it 28-7 and seal the deal. The 35-7 win was the best of all exclamation points, and made the '85 Vols one for the record books. McGee and Wilkerson went on to have successful NFL careers.
QB: Tony Robinson, Daryl Dickey
RB: Keith Davis, William Howard, Jeff Powell
WR: Tim McGee, Eric Swanson
OL: David Douglas, Harry Galbreath, Todd Kirk, John Bruhin, Bruce Wilkerson
DL: Robby Scott, Richard Brown, Mark Hovanic
LB: Bryan Kimbro, Dale Jones, Kelly Ziegler, Darrin Miller
DB: Tommy Sims, Terry Brown, Charles Davis, Chris White
1990: 9-2-2, SEC Champions, Final AP Rank #8
If you're too young to remember this season, you are missing out. The 1990 Vols played what is far and away the most difficult schedule in the history of the program, and that's really saying something considering our history of aggressive non-conference scheduling and the strength of this conference. I would put the narrative of this season with all its roller coaster glory against any season in the history of Tennessee Football.
The 1989 Vols, who you'll see later this week, bounced back from a disastrous 1988 season to go 11-1 and split the SEC Championship. Tennessee was ranked 8th in the preseason and traveled to Anaheim to face #5 Colorado in the old Pigskin Classic. The Vols mounted a furious fourth quarter rally using what is certainly in the conversation for the most talented set of skill players ever at UT: Chuck Webb in the backfield, Carl Pickens and Alvin Harper at wide receiver. With Andy Kelly leading the charge at quarterback, the Vols rallied to tie Colorado 31-31. The Buffaloes would go on to win the National Championship.
The next week, Tennessee hammered Pacific but lost Chuck Webb to a torn ACL...and the sophomore would leave the program. Webb is one of the most talented and most mysterious players to ever wear the orange and white. Without him, serious questions arose about the Vols' ability to run the football. Enter the diminutive Tony Thompson, a senior who had been buried on the depth chart his entire career behind Reggie Cobb and Chuck Webb but was still elected team captain. The little guy immediately made an impact with an incredible should-be-on-youtube run against Mississippi State in a win at Starkville. At 3-0-1 after a win over UTEP, the #5 Vols traveled to Auburn to face the #3 Tigers. This time Tennessee allowed the fourth quarter comeback as Auburn rallied to tie it 26-26. The Vols had played five games and tied twice against two of the nation's best.
Up next were Steve Spurrier's Florida Gators, with The Visor making his first appearance in this rivalry as a head coach. The Gators were ranked #9 and hungry to make their mark in the SEC. Instead, they got the business end of a 45-3 beatdown that many believe is part of the reason Spurrier always ran the score up on the Vols whenever he could. This game was 7-3 at halftime, then Dale Carter ran the second half kickoff back for six and the floodgates engaged. Truly one of the most joyous nights in Neyland Stadium history. It was then followed by what we called the most heartbreaking loss in Neyland Stadium history.
Unranked Alabama came in with the #3 Vols looking to end four years of misery against the Tide. Instead Alabama frustrated Tennessee all day, and with the game tied 6-6 and Tennessee finally looking to win on a 50 yard field goal in the final minute. Instead, the kick was blocked, bounced 30 yards downfield, Alabama got the ball there and kicked their own field goal to win 9-6. Only the 2001 loss to LSU was more costly.
Two weeks later the Vols hosted #1 Notre Dame in Knoxville and suffered another heartbreaking loss. The Vols led late in the game but Rocket Ishmail came alive and Notre Dame used big plays to take a two possession lead. But the Vols didn't quit, scoring on a Kelly to Harper TD and then actually recovering the onside kick. Tennessee drove to the red zone but Kelly was intercepted in the end zone, and the Irish escaped.
Tennessee then had to play #15 Ole Miss in Memphis, winner takes the lead in the SEC title race. And the Vols bounced back beautifully in a hard fought 22-13 victory. Taking care of business against Kentucky and Vanderbilt made the Vols your SEC Champion in back-to-back years, and put Tennessee in the Sugar Bowl. The Vols faced Virginia, who was ranked #1 in mid-October before their quarterback went down with an injury. Virginia led 16-0 at halftime, but Andy Kelly turned in one of the greatest fourth quarters in school history, leading three touchdown drives while the defense forced Virginia to kick field goals. Tony Thompson punched it in from the one yard line in the final minute to give the Vols a 23-22 storybook finish. Thompson would lead the SEC in rushing in 1990.
Nine Vols were taken in the 1991 NFL Draft, including the best first round run in school history: offensive tackles Antone Davis and Charles McRae went at 7 and 8, and Alvin Harper was chosen 12th. Every season tells a story, and 1990 remains one of my favorites.
QB: Andy Kelly
RB: Chuck Webb, Tony Thompson, Greg Amsler
WR: Carl Pickens, Alvin Harper, Mark Adams
OL: Charles McRae, Tom Myslinski, Doug Baird, John Fisher, Antone Davis
DL: Chuck Smith, Kacy Rodgers, Vince Moore, Carey Bailey
LB: Darryl Hardy, Earnest Fields, Shon Walker
DB: Floyd Miley, Jeremy Lincoln, Dale Carter, Mark Fletcher
Best Vol Team Quarterfinals: 1985 vs 1990