When I’m stressed, spent, or any other word you might use to describe what these days are taking from us, I find myself going back to happier childhood memories. I’ve been playing back through the Super Nintendo Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past on my Switch for the past 10 days or so, and I’m almost sad that I’m coming close to the end. It was surreal to turn on ESPN Sunday night and find WrestleMania 30; we taught our son the Yes! movement a little too close to bedtime, as it turned out.
And if you’re reading this site, chances are you’ve tried to fill some of these hours with Tennessee highlights. The problem with highlights, however, is they only burn seconds, and you can blow through what feels like everything you know in a short amount of time.
In watching those old WrestleMania matches, and in talking to some of my friends on what they’ve been going back and watching, I started thinking of some of our old “best of” lists. We’ve spilled plenty of word count on bests and favorites and all that over the years. But what’s most helpful right now is rewatchability: what games am I most likely to sit down and watch all of, with the least temptation to fast forward?
As always with me, you get 1989-present, both as a nice starting point in Tennessee’s history and about as far back as my own memories go. Shout out to those who uploaded these onto YouTube long ago, so that they’re here like old friends today. Click each game to go to the broadcast.
With rewatchability, you value the whole thing. I often use 1998 Florida as the example: one of the most memorable and important wins in Tennessee football history…but not an overly great football game play-for-play. Today’s list focuses on excitement, and is thus a little heavy on offense. I tried to think of these games in terms of the most plays of consequences, fewest three-and-outs, etc. We’ll come back in a few days with a list of Tennessee’s most satisfying beatdowns, if you’re in the mood for something a little less dramatic. And I also leaned into some games that haven’t been in as heavy a rotation; I adore the 1997 win over Auburn in the SEC Championship Game, but they replay that all the time. I think the top four games on this list are unassailable; if I watched them today I’d still be interested in watching them again tomorrow. The rest are the games I think are most rewatchable for March of 2020, including for younger fans, representing some of the greatest hits of the last two decades.
Play-for-play, for the most exciting ways to spend 60+ minutes of gametime and 2-3 hours watching Tennessee football, these are my picks:
This game carries the weight of Inky Johnson’s injury, someone whose positivity we could all use more of right about now. A week after blowing past #9 California, Tennessee needed all of David Cutcliffe’s high-powered offense against the Falcons and the triple-option. Total punts in this game: two. Total punts by Tennessee in this game: zero.
Two weeks before the December showdown at Florida, the #6 Vols fell behind 21-0 against Jared Lorenzen in Lexington. I was at this game, and it was terrifying; much less so when you know the outcome.
Four years later, this one still carries a tinge of grief for what this team didn’t ultimately become, which is why I have it lower than the next one on our list among games from the last decade. Still, there are so many meaningful plays in this game, even having memorized them all in the last few years.
Hello, Josh Dobbs. The most rewatchable game of the 2010’s. All the things we wanted to believe about Dobbs that night really came true. An incredible football game even before the complete insanity of the last five minutes, and the performance of Tennessee’s pass rush in overtime. And the last word against Steve Spurrier.
Another feather in the 2006 cap. If you’re too young, you might wonder what an 18-point win is doing in this group instead of being on the beat-down list. Just watch. Antonio Wardlow gets the cover of Sports Illustrated, and this might be the most complete fourth quarter in the history of Tennessee football.
All the other multi-overtime games at Tennessee really lack a compelling story for most of regulation. Not this one. And don’t forget, this was a really good Kentucky team: beat #1 LSU, ranked in the Top 10 two different times that year. No Tennessee win in the last 13 years has mattered more than this one.
The Miracle at South Bend, and the best road unis the Vols have ever worn. If you’ve never watched this game from start to finish – including the entire first half just to appreciate how bad it was in digging a 31-7 hole – now’s the time.
The best play-for-play game I’ve ever seen at Neyland Stadium. Ainge and Schaeffer, Chris Leak, a 12-play 80-yard UT touchdown drive featuring all runs, a bananas touchdown pass from Ainge to Bret Smith, and the ballad of James Wilhoit. All in front of what will probably always be the largest crowd in Neyland Stadium history.
The best play-for-play game I’ve ever seen period. The stakes, the rivalry, everything on the line and winning anyway. It’s hard to believe this game turns 20 years old next fall.
I think those two Florida games are slightly better play-for-play. But they don’t carry the feel-goods of 1998, which will always push this one over the top.