Stories of the Decade: Are You Sure the Referees Have Left the Field?

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The last three weeks we’ve looked back at some of Tennessee’s most rewatchable games: the dramatic, the dominant, and the best performances. It doesn’t take long to realize anything related to most rewatchable for the Vols is going to lean heavy into the past.

But even with fewer happy moments to choose from, I’ve found myself wanting to talk about more recent events as well. Like a lot of places, we put out some decade retrospective stuff in December, focusing on our favorite things from the last ten years. For this summer’s Gameday on Rocky Top Magazine – which we believe will still be a thing – I wrote a piece on the most important stories of the decade and put them in chronological order.

But even before sports were postponed, I found myself thinking about expanded versions of the stories in that list – some good, some bad, some weird – and trying to rank them in order of importance. Of everything that happened to Tennessee football in the 2010’s, which moments ended up having the biggest impact?

Like you, I’m hopeful we’ll get to tell stories about the present and future of Tennessee football really soon. Until then, here’s a look back at the more recent past and how it impacts the present. Starting today, with two games we might’ve thought would be the most difficult losses of the decade at the time they happened. Turns out, they barely made the list.

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

Here’s the argument for Derek Dooley heading into year zero one:

  • Not Lane Kiffin
  • Said “britches” in his introductory press conference
  • Mom was entertaining
  • Not Lane Kiffin

But man, points one and four were strong. We wanted this dude to work, especially for those reasons.

Before Kiffin’s departure (which we’ll get to in this list), we were talking ourselves into the Vols as a dark horse SEC East candidate in 2010. The 2009 Vols finished just 7-6, but were 24th in SP+. Aside from big wins over Georgia and South Carolina, Tennessee was competitive with Florida, should’ve beaten Alabama, and ran into one of Virginia Tech’s most dangerous teams in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Eric Berry would go pro and the Vols would need a new quarterback. But the talent level within the program still felt high enough to dream. (2010 was the right year for dreams to come true in the SEC East, as it turned out: South Carolina would win their first and only division title at only 5-3.)

Kiffin’s departure didn’t take down a solid recruiting class right away. And Dooley’s Vols came out feisty: a 13-3 lead on Oregon in the second quarter in Knoxville, and still down just seven late in the third quarter before a pick six opened all the floodgates. The Gators, coming off a two-year tear, won by just 14 against Dooley’s first squad. The reality check could’ve come the next week against UAB, but the Vols survived in overtime.

And then, #12 LSU in Baton Rouge.

Jordan Jefferson – remember when LSU couldn’t find a quarterback who could throw? – ran 83 yards for a touchdown on the game’s first play. And you figure, okay, maybe this is the comeuppance. Maybe this is the reality, we’re going to be bad for a while, and we’ll just take a whipping here.

But LSU’s next two drives ended with an interception and a missed field goal. The Vols tied it up. More turnovers, more missed field goals, and suddenly it’s still 7-7 going to the fourth quarter. LSU added a field goal in the first minute to make it 10-7.

And then, manna from heaven. Two big plays – a 37-yard completion to freshman Justin Hunter on 3rd-and-3, a 20-yard run from Tauren Poole on 3rd-and-6 – and the Vols had the lead. LSU got a 47-yard completion to first and goal at the nine yard line, so the joy didn’t seem built to last. But LaMarcus Thompson made a fantastic end zone interception on the very next play, LSU’s fourth turnover.

The Vols had 4th-and-1 at the LSU 31 with 5:41 to play, went for it, and didn’t get it. And so began a 16-play drive for the Tigers.

We know the ending, but along the way you forget, or at least I did, that on this drive LSU converted 3rd-and-13 and 4th-and-14.

And then, the ending.

I remember one of my friends calling me as soon as Dooley and the Vols came barreling onto the field in celebration, and having about a 20-second conversation about how the Vols – despite being out-gained by like 200 yards – deserved to win because Les Miles deserved to lose a game like this every once in a while. And then I remember hanging up the phone real fast.

I laughed when I went back and read what we wrote at Rocky Top Talk in the immediate postgame: what if those sixty seconds (when we thought we won) are as good as it gets this year?

But then, a month later, enter Tyler Bray. And suddenly, it got better.

Bray rewrote Tennessee’s freshman passing record book, but did so against 1-11 Memphis, 4-8 Ole Miss, 2-10 Vanderbilt, then 6-6 Kentucky. The four-game winning streak on his shoulders built all kinds of optimism for 2011 and beyond under Dooley, with a nice year zero prize: a first (and, we hoped, maybe only) trip to Nashville for the Music City Bowl. North Carolina would serve as a nice Level 2 for Bray, helping us understand more of what we should expect from him in the future.

A fairly compelling football game broke out. Trailing 10-7, Bray hit fellow freshman Da’Rick Rogers for a 45 yard score with 90 seconds left in the first half. That was enough for Carolina to answer, taking a 17-14 lead into the locker room. That score held until the final five minutes, when Bray hit Hunter from eight yards out to give the Vols a 20-17 lead…because the Vols missed the extra point. Dun dun dun.

Carolina turned it over on downs, but the Vols couldn’t run out the clock. UNC took over at their 20 yard line with 31 seconds left and no timeouts. That part, too – all this in just 31 seconds – I’d forgotten.

The clock stops first because Janzen Jackson gets a 15-yard personal foul for…I believe launching is the technical term, though I’m not sure I can recall it being flagged before or since. That’s at the end of a 28-yard completion, so now Carolina has it at the Vol 37. They pick up 12 more yards on the next play, then spike the ball with 16 seconds left. It would’ve been a 42-yard field goal to tie from here.

And then they run a draw play to get a little closer, I guess. It’s a ridiculous idea. But you know what happens next.

Ten years later, it’s still a question worth asking: which loss hurt more? For me, it’s this one: takes away from your momentum at the end of the year, and it’s much less your fault. Plenty of stuff the Vols could’ve done differently, in regulation or the two overtimes to come. But also, the referee is supposed to stand over the ball while Carolina is running half their personnel on and off the field as those final seconds tick down, and prevent T.J. Yates from (wisely) spiking the ball anyway with one second left (followed by the head referee infamously saying, “The game is over.”) These days we have a rule against that. But not in 2010.

In an alternate universe, the Vols and Tar Heels started a home-and-home series the following year, plenty of chances for revenge and all that.

Instead, we got the peak of the Derek Dooley era, fittingly, by beating Butch Jones and Cincinnati in week two of 2011. And some of the steps to that peak came from the build-up of this argument: the Vols went 6-7 in 2010, but were 8-5 when the game ended the first time. I think the 2010 Vols are still overachievers, especially considering the three coaches in three years bit, the way they fought against Oregon and Florida early, and didn’t quit late.

From what I believe was our fourth Music City Bowl recap piece:

It just twists the knife deeper to know that the Vols were beat twice, in a way, because the other team was so insane, it accidentally worked to their advantage.  Both LSU and UNC tried to substitute with far, far too little time left on the clock.  In Baton Rouge, the Vols responded to that insanity in kind, and it cost us.  In Nashville, I’m not sure the umpire ever even saw it…because the thought that they would go ahead and try to kick instead of spiking it on third down really was that crazy.

On January 1, 2011, those two games seemed like they would definitely be both the hardest and craziest losses we took this decade. But just you wait.

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9 months ago

Great stuff Will. I was in the band during 2010, so I had the great pleasure of attending both these games in person. I’ve never experienced the amount of confusion that I had during the UNC game