The third game of the season. A humiliating, embarrassing loss to a hated rival. Folks immediately calling for the coach’s head on a plate.
It was Saturday night, September 15, 2007, and Vols fans were livid. Urban Meyer, Tim Tebow, Percy Harvin, and Brandon James had just flat-out dominated Tennessee in The Swamp, 59-20. They didn’t just win the game, they ripped the hope for the entire season out of our hands and curb-stomped it.
There was no way Tennessee could recover, no way the Vols would be able to compete for the East.
It was not a happy time on Rocky Top. The Big Orange was now 1-2 after three games, and fans everywhere were busy making jokes about Phillip Fulmer responding to the adversity by “working like heck,” to get it fixed. A win over Arkansas State the next week did little to dull the sharp edges, and a bye week after that only gave it additional time to fester.
And then #12 Georgia came to town the same day an article appeared in the local paper that was extremely critical of coach Fulmer and ostensibly relied on quotes from anonymous former players to drive its points deep. The whole thing was going off the rails.
But then, the thing that nobody said could possibly happen, happened. The unranked Vols beat #12 Georgia. They not only beat them, they did to the Bulldogs what Florida had done to them three weeks prior. Tennessee won 35-14 in a game that wasn’t even as close as the score made it look.
Meanwhile, Florida had lost the week before to Auburn and then lost to LSU on the same day that Tennessee beat Georgia, and Tennessee was now ahead of Florida in the race for the SEC East. Georgia, which would lose only two games the entire year, was also looking up at Tennessee when the sun set on October 6, 2007.
So, flared tempers settled for a couple of weeks. The Vols took care of business against Mississippi State, and then the team traveled to Alabama on October 20. This was Nick Saban’s first year at Alabama, before he was NICK [FULMERIZED] SABAN and Alabama went on a decade-long (so far) rampage for the ages. The Tide would lose six (SIX!) games in 2007.
But they wouldn’t lose to Tennessee. And, in keeping with the theme for the season, they didn’t just beat the Vols, they embarrassed them, 41-17. Forget what you know about Alabama right now; this was a terrible loss to a terrible team, and it dashed the Vols’ hopes for the SEC East. Again. Florida was now 3-2 with the tiebreaker over the Vols.
The next two weeks did little to diminish the fury that had reloaded, rebuilt, and set up headquarters on Kingston Pike. With #16 South Carolina coming to town, the newspaper published a photo of the Grim Reaper at coach Fulmer’s door, and TV guys were saying that the only thing the program had left to look forward to was signing day and the NFL Draft. Fulmer used it to rally his guys, and they beat the Gamecocks in overtime.
Georgia beat Florida that same day, tying everything up in the East, but few cared. The Vols were certain to lose another game along the way, especially with the Arkansas Razorbacks and Heisman-contender Darren McFadden coming to town two in two weeks.
This time, though, those supporting Fulmer were on to the newspaper’s tricks. Nearly 200 former players, including Peyton Manning and Albert Haynesworth, went on record by actually signing their names to a letter of support and paying the newspaper to publish it as a full-page advertisement. The Vols went out and handled McFadden and the Razorbacks easily that day and won, 34-13. A defense that “couldn’t stop anybody,” held the SEC’s best rusher to 117 yards on 22 carries and his team to a mere 13 points.
Vanderbilt and Kentucky
But the drama wasn’t over. Florida won that day, and Georgia beat #18 Auburn, so Tennessee needed to win the rest of its games to keep ahead of the Gators and hold of the tiebreaker against Georgia, and many remained unconvinced that they’d be able to do it. They squeaked out a one-point victory over Vanderbilt on November 17 when the Commodores barely missed what would have been a 49-yard, game-winning field goal with 33-seconds left.
The following week gave us the epic four overtime game with Kentucky, which the Vols finally won 52-50. This game will always be the Fiddler on the Roof game to me, and to this day it remains one of the most entertaining things I’ve ever seen. After everything that had happened, it was an all-or-nothing game the Vols needed for a trip to the SEC Championship. In keeping with the rest of the season, the Vols got behind early, it was close the rest of the way, and they pulled it out in the end.
The SEC Championship Game
After having backed in to the championship game, the Vols certainly had no chance against #7 LSU, right? Wrong. They were one fourth-quarter pick-six away from winning the game and the conference.
The 2007 season was part heartbreak and part thriller, all rolled up into one. I often wonder, though, how many may have missed the thrill because they were filled with dread before every game, certain that more heartbreak lurked around the corner.
I hated 2007. I loved 2007. I’m glad I didn’t let the former spoil the latter.
Where are we now?
Third game of the season. A humiliating, embarrassing loss to a hated rival. Folks immediately calling for the coach’s head on a plate.
The rest of the season may be heartbreaking. It may also be thrilling. Probably, it will be a combination of both.
No one can know for sure until it happens. But if there’s something good at the end of this path, we won’t want to miss it.
Chaos didn’t limit itself to Tennessee and the SEC East in 2007. The entire college football landscape was turned upside down. For an animation recapping much of that, see the old 2007 Animated BlogPoll.