Apologies to “Sleepless in Seattle,” but the consensus seems to be that unranked Tennessee’s Saturday game at second-ranked Oregon should be called “Hopeless in Eugene.”
The smart money says the Vols have no chance against a Duck team that is favored by 27½ points. Well, the smart money is wrong: There is always a chance the underdog can win, even if the odds appear to be just this side of infinitesimal.
Vintage Big Orange fans understand this. They’ve seen their beloved Vols pull off some mind-boggling upsets through the years. Here are a few from the past 35 years:
Johnny Majors stood 13-15-1 as Tennessee’s head coach after suffering a humiliating 13-7 homecoming loss to Rutgers on Nov. 3, 1979. With 13th-ranked Notre Dame coming to town seven days later, the Vols were given no shot to win. Hubert Simpson tied Tennessee’s single-game record by scoring four rushing touchdowns that day, however, and the Vols shocked Dan Devine’s Irish 40-18.
Majors’ 1980 Vols carried a 1-2 record into Auburn to face a Tiger team ranked No. 18 and spurred on by a program-record crowd of 95,000. With an obscure quarterback named Jeff Olszewski having his career game, the Vols parlayed a near-perfect performance into a 42-0 annihilation of Doug Barfield’s squad. Auburn’s official website refers to that loss as “perhaps the darkest day in Auburn's long and glorious football history.”
The 1982 season saw a 2-2-1 Tennessee team given no shot against legendary Bear Bryant’s second-ranked Alabama squad when the teams met Oct. 16 in Knoxville. No wonder: The Vols had lost 11 consecutive meetings with the Tide. Mike Terry intercepted a Walter Lewis pass in the end zone with 17 seconds left, however, to seal a 35-28 shocker in what would be Bryant’s final meeting with Tennessee.
Tennessee was viewed as no match for 11th-ranked Alabama heading into their Oct. 15, 1983 meeting in Birmingham. The Vols’ 3-2 record included a 37-14 home-field loss to Auburn, yet safety Joe Cofer was enraged to hear the Tide was favored by 13 points. "Thirteen points!” he snarled. “They won't score 13 points!" Actually, Bama scored 34 points that day but Tennessee scored 41. The game-winning touchdown came on a dramatic fourth-quarter burst by Johnnie Jones.
Bo Jackson was the hottest thing in college football when he and the top-ranked Auburn Tigers rolled into Knoxville on Sept. 28, 1985. Sports Illustrated sent a reporter to write a cover story on Bo once the Tigers manhandled an unranked Tennessee team that was coming off a season-opening tie with UCLA. Vol linebacker Dale Jones put a wicked hit on Mr. Jackson, however, and Bo decided to watch the rest of the game from the safety of the sidelines as Tennessee romped 38-20.
If Tennessee’s 1985 drubbing of Auburn wasn’t the greatest upset in program history the game that concluded the ’85 season probably was. Although the Vols were ranked eighth nationally heading into the ’86 Sugar Bowl game, they were nine-point underdogs against a second-ranked Miami team that featured Vinny Testaverde, Michael Irvin and a host of other first-round NFL Draft picks. After spotting Jimmy Johnson’s overconfident Hurricanes a quick 7-0 lead, Tennessee dominated the rest of the way en route to a smashing 35-7 victory.
After squeaking past lowly Colorado State 17-14 in the 1989 opener, unranked Tennessee was given virtually no chance against sixth-ranked UCLA when the teams collided Sept. 9 in Pasadena. Quarterback Sterling Henton played a near-flawless game, however, and the Vols posted a workmanlike 24-7 victory.
Tennessee brought a 5-2 record and No. 13 national ranking into its 1991 game with Notre Dame but was a decided underdog against a Fighting Irish squad coached by Lou Holtz, ranked No. 5 nationally and playing at home in front of Touchdown Jesus. Down 31-7, Tennessee blocked a field goal and ran it back for a touchdown just before halftime. The Vols then outscored their hosts 21-3 in the second half to take a 35-34 lead. Tennessee blocked another field goal in the final seconds – Jeremy Lincoln’s butt made the deflection – to seal what has come to be known as “The Miracle at South Bend.”
With Johnny Majors recovering from open-heart surgery, offensive coordinator Phillip Fulmer led the No. 14 Vols into battle with fourth-ranked Florida on Sept. 19, 1992 at Neyland Stadium. Gator head man Steve Spurrier brought a three-year SEC record of 14-1 into the game but Heath Shuler ran for two touchdowns and threw for a third as Tennessee rolled, 31-14.
Though ranked No. 5 nationally, Tennessee was an 18-point underdog when it visited second-ranked Florida on Dec. 1, 2001. Travis Stephens posted a brilliant 226-yard rushing effort and Buck Fitzgerald shut down a two-point conversion try in the final minute as the Vols shocked the Gators, 34-32, handing Spurrier a loss in his final home game as Florida coach.
Three weeks removed from a humbling 41-14 home loss to Georgia, the No. 17 Vols were considered longshots when they showed up in Miami on Nov. 8, 2003 to face a sixth-ranked Hurricane squad that was riding an NCAA-best 26-game home winning streak. Tennessee managed just 170 yards of total offense but Derrick Tinsley scored on a fourth-down end-around from the 2-yard line to spark a 10-6 victory. It was the first time Miami was held without a touchdown in a home game since 1984, 19 years earlier.
With Tennessee coming off a 34-10 home loss to Auburn and Georgia coming off a 45-16 drubbing of LSU, the 17th-ranked Vols were 12½-point road underdogs as they prepared to face the third-ranked Bulldogs on Oct. 9, 2004. Worse, freshman quarterback Erik Ainge was coming off a starting debut which saw him cough up four interceptions and a fumble, whereas Georgia QB David Greene was coming off a five-touchdown performance versus LSU. Ainge completed 12 of 21 passes for 150 yards and two touchdowns, however, and Greene completed just 15 of 34 for 163 yards and zero TDs as the Vols shocked the Dawgs 19-14.
Two weeks after suffering a 59-20 beat-down at the hands of Florida, an unranked Tennessee team hosted No. 12 Georgia on Oct. 6, 2007. The Vols outrushed the favored Dawgs 190 yards to 69, however, built a 28-0 halftime lead and coasted to a 35-14 romp.
It has been six seasons since the Big Orange posted a significant upset victory. This can be viewed two ways. The pessimist will say, “This program has fallen so far that it no longer can compete with upper-echelon teams.” Meanwhile, the optimist will say, “Hey, baby, we’re due.”