Tennessee has certainly had its share of heart-pounding, nail-biting games in my lifetime. The 1982 Alabama game and the Miracle at South Bend are two of the more-notorious. But while those two games were incredibly exciting, they both occurred before Phil was head coach, so I'm going to stick with my rule and only mention a few from last 17 years.
First, it is important to remember that while Tennessee has its rightful place in the history of college football and has earned its spot as one of the top teams in SEC history, we haven't gotten there with a lot of flash, brawn or sophistication. No matter how good we may be on paper we find ourselves, more often than not, as underdogs and in the position of having to come from behind in the second half.
We aren't the team heaving the ball down the field late in the fourth quarter in an attempt to run up the score on our opponent (coughFloridacough). No, we're the team heaving the ball down the field late in the fourth quarter in an attempt to come back from a 21 point deficit and tie the game with four seconds left on the clock. It makes for stressful spectating and fans prone to anxiety attacks. I'm actually surprised that Zoloft doesn't advertise in our stadium and/or come in a little orange and white checkerboard bottle. That said, if I had to choose between these two scenarios for the kind of team Tennessee would continue to be, I'd still take the later every time.
If you'd like an example of one of these games, I wrote a blow-by-blow account of last year's Tennessee / Kentucky game that went into maaaaany overtimes and almost resulted in a case of elder abuse.
Two other very notable examples come from the 1998 season. We went undefeated that year but not without trying REALLY hard to go at least 11-2. As I've mentioned, we also won a national championship that year. But when I think back about that year, that game in the Fiesta Bowl was not the highlight. Nice. Very nice. But not the highlight. The highlights for me were the Florida and Arkansas games.
In the Arkansas game we looked destined to lose. It was upsetting. I was in graduate school and invited friends over to watch the game. It was Arkansas, after all, usually a pretty sure thing. But in typical fashion we tried every which way possible to lose the game. It was close, but Arkansas was ahead and had the ball and time was running out. I was in deeply disgruntled and had gone into the kitchen to clear some dishes and make a cold compress for my forehead. Suddenly I heard my friends screaming from the other room.
I went running back into the room and learned that Arkansas had indeed fumbled the ball and we had recovered. All was not lost after all and in the end we won.
Ahhh, but I tell the stories out of order... even more amazingly, just a few short weeks prior to that, I was alone in that same apartment watching what looked like it was going to be the 12th consecutive ass-kicking of Tennessee by the Florida Gators. But somehow. SOMEHOW. We tied the game and went into overtime. My mother, step-father and aunt were at the game. I, as I mentioned, was in my apartment - alone - in a tiny corner of Ohio. I had called their cell phone a couple of times and when they answered all you could hear was screaming.
Tennessee had first possession, managed to score a field goal, and went up by three. The Webbed-Footed Minions of Hell had the next possession. I figured all hope was lost, a touchdown was imminent, and tried not to have a stroke.
But our defense held. Florida had to kick a field goal. A gimme that would send us into a second overtime. A second overtime that was likely to spell the end of our exhausted team that had already beaten all odds to make it this far. I tried to be positive. I watched the kick through my fingers that were covering my face.
No good. The kick was no good.
I paused, stunned for a second. Then my body began involuntarily screaming and running around my living room as I watched thousands of sweaty, long-suffering, orange-clad lunatics spill over the walls around the field like fire ants, swarm the goal posts and bring them down within just a few seconds.
Someone knocked on my door. It was my neighbor in the next apartment and when he realized I was NOT being attacked by an axe murderer he came inside to watch the spectacle unfold on the television himself.
I found out much later that it took my parents and aunt four hours to get back to my step-grandmother's house five miles from the stadium. That the two young guys sitting in the seats next to them took off running down the second the game was won and they watched them dive over the wall. That the goal posts I watched being brought down were then carried out of the stadium and up the main thoroughfare that runs through campus. That the radio play-by-play of John Ward had him nonchalantly calling the kick and assuming, like we all did, that it would go into a second overtime only to have him stop, speechless, take it all in and say:
"NO. SIR. EE! NO. SIR. EE!... TENNESSEE 20! FLORIDA 17! PANDEMONIUM REIGNS!"
This doesn't do it justice, of course, but go here to listen to the call and see photos from that night (just scroll to the bottom). You don't have to be a Tennessee fan to enjoy it. Hell, you don't even have to be a sports fan at all. Regardless, it's been a nice memory during this long, long season.