Neyland Stadium - Running Through the T

Stories of the Decade: A Smokey Gray Almost

My wife and I got married in August of 2013. When we came back from our honeymoon, the first question everyone asked was, of course, “What do you think of the new uniforms?”

Unlike Lane Kiffin’s last minute switcheroo with the black uniforms, Tennessee fans got almost two months of build-up for the smokey grays. My informal opinion is most fans went on to prefer the Nike version with its truly unique helmet, as opposed to the adidas version that eventually showed up at just about every other school they had under contract. The black unis were a hit because, in large part, the Vols played so well in them, even those who really hated the idea couldn’t be so loud about it. I’ve joked before that in my eight years of writing at Rocky Top Talk, the only comment my dad ever left on a post was to express his disdain for the black unis.

Uniforms are serious, polarizing business. As we speak, it feels like Nike is intentionally screwing up NFL uniforms just to make more money when they bring back the old look a couple years later. I’m a fan of clean, unique looks. It’s one of the great things about Tennessee: our orange is immediately distinguishable, as are our checkerboards even when Kentucky tries to steal them. The memories of the Butch Jones era aren’t always fond, but those first Nike unis with the checkerboard stripe down the side of the pants and the back of the helmet? I love those. It keeps everything great about Tennessee’s traditional look, and adds a slight touch to make them even more uniquely ours. If you have an iconic franchise, there’s no reason they should ever wear something like this:

(Also, these are the best road unis we’ve ever worn:)

The initial reaction to the smokey grays seemed somewhere in the middle – a big change for an iconic brand. But in the weeks (and years) ahead, man, they sold. Not just the jerseys, but lots of gray merchandise. I still have a lot of it; it’s helpful when you’re trying to be loud, but not too loud, in hostile territory.

Year one for Butch Jones started off okay: the Vols beat Austin Peay in the opener, then rode an enormous wave of turnovers to blow by Western Kentucky 52-20. Then the Vols were Marcus Mariotaed at Oregon, and Nathan Petermaned themselves at Florida. A 31-24 survival of South Alabama didn’t warm any fuzzies.

Georgia came to Knoxville ranked sixth. The year before, they came as close to disrupting Alabama’s dynasty without actually doing it as anyone, a feat only topped by themselves a few years later. In 2013 they lost a 38-35 thriller at Clemson in the opener, then rebounded with a 41-30 win over South Carolina. The week before Knoxville, they beat LSU 44-41. These dudes were tested, and the Aaron Murray, Todd Gurley, Malcolm Mitchell offense was lighting it up. The Dawgs opened as 10.5-point favorites and it swelled to 13.5 by kickoff.

My wife comes from a huge baseball family, heavily familiar with the sports DNA. But she was newer to football. And getting married three weeks before the first game of the Butch Jones era, I was nervous. It’s a question many of us have asked at some point in the last decade: will the Vols be good enough in time for this person I love to become attached to them?

Georgia scored 10 points on their first two drives. The Vols got a field goal early in the second quarter, but the Dawgs immediately answered with a touchdown. It was 17-3 at halftime, and the Vols had punted four times, plus a three-and-out to open the third quarter.

And then Georgia missed a 39-yard field goal with nine minutes left in the third quarter.

I don’t know how many fans do the two-possessions math, but it’s enough to make a difference. The Vols hadn’t moved the ball all day, but we were still in it with #6 Georgia. And when that happens, all it takes is one play.

The spark, as it turned out, came from Pig Howard. We all know where this game is headed, but before that, Howard caught a 33-yard pass from Justin Worley to get the Vols to the Georgia 40 yard line. Worley ran for 11, then Howard ran for 10. And then, on 3rd-and-10:

Back in it.

The Vols got a stop, but couldn’t capitalize. But Michael Palardy, doing double duty, bombed a 57-yard punt to back the Dawgs up. Tennessee’s defense earned a three-and-out.

There’s a list of great Neyland Stadium moments that happened in a loss. Everything until the end zone interception in the final minutes against #1 Notre Dame in 1990. The screen pass to Travis Stephens pre-hobnail. Cedric Houston almost going the distance right away against #1 Miami in 2002. Everything before the flash flood against Oregon in 2010. That first interception against Oklahoma in 2015.

This is definitely on that list:

Before he was the guy making three dozen tackles in big games, Jalen Reeves-Maybin was the guy who blocked this punt. Devaun Swafford gets the score, I believe it’s Geraldo Orta who gets the decleater at the goal line. And Neyland and the Vols are fully alive.

What’s truly amazing about this game is that everything left to happen all transpired in the last minute of the third quarter, the fourth, and the overtime. Aaron Murray ran for 57 yards on the last play of the third, Georgia scored on the first play of the fourth, and maybe it’s over. But nope: Rajion Neal busts one on 4th-and-1 for 43 yards, then finishes off the drive, and we’re tied again. The Vols get a stop, and two epic drives unfold. Tennessee goes 80 yards in 13 plays, converting two 4th-and-1’s and a 3rd-and-10. Neal scores again from seven yards out, and the Vols have their first lead of the day, 31-24, with 1:54 to go. Rajion on the day gets 148 yards on 28 carries.

Aaron Murray, to his absolute credit, refuses to be denied. Ten plays, 75 yards, no timeouts, three third down conversions, including a two yard pass with five seconds left to send it to overtime.

You know how it ends. But this one was a great example of what can be in a coach’s first year, even when you don’t win. Butch Jones was already off and running on the recruiting trail. But this one made people believe, including my wife. It’s a great testimony to what Neyland can be, even when we don’t win.

The Vols had to sit with it through the bye week. South Carolina, ranked 11th, was next. Tennessee didn’t play as well as they did against Georgia.

But Marquez North and Michael Palardy found a way.

If you forgot, and I bet you haven’t, Derek Dooley never beat a ranked team in three years. When Butch Jones almost got #6 Georgia, then beat #11 South Carolina?

Here’s one of the pictures that’s changed the most over time:

When it happens, you think it’s the first of many. Turns out, it might’ve been the best win in all of Jones’ tenure. His teams went on to beat #19 Georgia, #12 Northwestern, #19 Florida, #25 Georgia, and #24 Nebraska. None were ranked higher on gameday than #11 South Carolina here. Among teams ranked in the final AP poll, Jones’ Vols beat #24 Northwestern in 2015, and #14 Florida and #16 Virginia Tech in 2016. None finished the year better than South Carolina in 2013 at #4.

You just never know. We thought Marquez North would be a star for years to come, but this became his finest hour. These two games over three weeks felt like the beginning, like they should’ve earned a much higher place than #9 on our list of the most important stories of the decade. They’re still a terrific example of what can be powerful, in a coach’s first year and in Neyland at all times. But they’ve become the first example of what came to haunt Jones’ tenure: great moments that didn’t ultimately last because they didn’t turn into great seasons.

More in this series:

10. Are you sure the referees have left the field?

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