A few of Tennessee’s most memorable individual performances became part of Tennessee’s most rewatchable games. We’ve already covered Josh Dobbs at South Carolina in 2014, Travis Stephens at Florida in 2001, Tony Thompson at Mississippi State in 1990, and Erik Ainge at Kentucky in 2007, among others. There are also some record-breaking performances that simply get overshadowed by the outcome: Al Wilson’s three forced fumbles against Florida in 1998 is a school record, but just one piece of that grand narrative.
For this list, I tried to look at games that were particularly defined by what the individual or team did. A huge, huge thanks to the folks who put Tennessee’s football media guide together, which was incredibly helpful in building this list.
In the first ever ESPN Thursday night game, the season opener saw the #11 Vols, two-time defending SEC Champions, head to Louisville to face current Purdue coach Jeff Brohm (who breaks his ankle in this game). Other than Peyton Manning, I’m not sure any Vol had as much Heisman hype in Week 1 than Carl Pickens. Eric Berry was a more unique story as a defensive player, though Pickens played both ways his freshman season. Heath Shuler would eventually finish second. But Pickens was a two-year standout coming into the ’91 campaign, with Andy Kelly back for his senior year to throw bombs. In this game, Pickens catches a 75-yard touchdown pass and returns a punt 67 yards for another score, the longest combination of two touchdowns by two different means in school history.
Overshadowed immediately because the Vols beat Alabama for the first time in ten years the next week in the number one game on our beat down list. But in the moment, a Top 20 clash between the #10 Vols and #18 Arkansas, who went on to win the SEC West in 1995. The Razorbacks scored 31 points on what became a really good Vol defense. But this was Peyton Manning’s national coming out party: 384 yards through the air, at the time his career high (which he’d go on to top four more times). And Joey Kent tied a school record with 13 receptions (with Pickens from the 1990 Notre Dame game, maybe the most rewatchable game the Vols lost). Tennessee won 49-31, with Manning and Kent both on their way to rewriting the Vol record books.
There’s a lot of nostalgia here: the season opener after winning the national championship the year before. A great Neyland Stadium moment when Jamal Lewis gets 21 yards on the first play from scrimmage in returning from his ACL tear. For me, this was my first game in the student section as a freshmen at UT. But the school record here belongs to the defense: a ludicrous 13 sacks against the Cowboys. You watch some of these old games and it just wasn’t a fair fight, this one certainly among them.
This one you probably know: Tee Martin completes his first 23 passes against the Gamecocks, setting an NCAA record. An incredible accomplishment considering he started the year struggling through the air against Syracuse and Florida. Another game time capsule game for the 1998 season.
We go back and talk about this game a fair amount, and not for the Derek Dooley vs Butch Jones weirdness. Other than anything from 2016, I think you walked out of this game feeling like the Vols were closer to being “back” than any other point in the last decade. Tyler Bray set a school record for completion percentage among QBs with more than 40 attempts, going 34-of-41 (82.9%) for 405 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions. And Da’Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter turned in the only dual 10+ catch/100+ yard game in school history, both getting 10 catches with Hunter gaining 156 yards and Rogers an even 100. Injuries derailed all this momentum the next few weeks, but in the moment, life was good. And it remains one of the best passing/receiving performances in school history.
What’s the most rewatchable game from last season? Kentucky and the Gator Bowl have the best endings. South Carolina is most enjoyable from a beat down perspective. And if you’re looking for the one that provides the most hope, it might actually be Alabama. The Vols beat Missouri 24-20; doesn’t seem like a lot to shout about. But behind a couple of blocked field goals, a Mizzou trick play touchdown, and a fumble in Tiger territory, Tennessee dominated. The Vols outgained Missouri by 246 yards, their largest margin vs FBS competition in five years. Jarrett Guarantano threw for 415 yards, joining Manning and Bray as the only Vols to hit that number. And for the first time in school history, Tennessee had three receivers break the 100-yard barrier: 6 for 124 for Josh Palmer, 5 for 115 for Jauan Jennings, 6 for 110 for Marquez Callaway.
With Reggie Cobb’s Tennessee career over at midseason, the CobbWebb became simply the Chuck Webb show. And no one has ever been better than Webb on this day: 294 yards on the ground against what became an 8-4 Ole Miss team. It’s a ridiculous performance, one of two from his late season flurry that deserves your attention…
Three years before they joined the SEC, #10 Arkansas met the #8 Vols in the January 1, 1990 Cotton Bowl. And Webb was at it again, running for 250 yards, still the second-most in school history. It’s a better opponent in what became a really good football game: the Vols won 31-27, capping off an 11-1 SEC Championship season.
In Tennessee’s first game post-9/11, #7 Tennessee hosted #14 LSU on Saturday night in Knoxville. We know what happened in the rematch and all that, though you’ll get less bad vibes watching the first encounter because Rohan Davey doesn’t get hurt. But the story here became Kelley Washington: 11 catches for a school-record 256 yards. I’ve never been at a game where everyone in the building knew what was going to happen, and then it happened anyway like this. Casey Clausen was going to #15. And Nick Saban’s defense simply could not stop it.
The Couch/Manning graphic at the start of this broadcast is nice for storytelling purposes, but there simply was no “Manning vs _________” for any other college quarterback by this point. Couch, the #1 pick in the 1999 NFL Draft, was good: 476 yards, three touchdowns, 31 points for Kentucky. Manning was Manning: 523 yards, still a school record vs power five competition, five touchdowns, 59 points for the Vols. Peyton had bigger wins and more crucial performances, specifically two weeks later against Auburn in the SEC title game. But if you want the poetry of the individual performance, this is Manning’s masterpiece.