10 moments that defined the decade for Tennessee football
Overall, Tennessee defined mediocrity in the past decade. With a bowl game to play, the Vols have won 64 games and lost 62. They’ve gone 3-1 in bowl games with 1 more to go next month, which will count for the 2019 season.
Regardless, Tennessee still has produced some good talent in that time, with 20 players selected in the NFL Draft since the 2010 season. No, the Vols haven’t been elite … but at least they haven’t been boring.
Let’s take a look back at the 10 most memorable moments for the Vols this decade.
No. 10: Losing to LSU and North Carolina in 2010
The first year of the Derek Dooley era is remembered best for 2 losses that defy explanation.
On Oct. 2, 2010, the Vols led LSU 14-10 in the final seconds. The Tigers had the football on Tennessee’s 1-yard line. When a snap got past LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson, a raucous celebration was underway for the Vols. But a flag on the field told an awful story. A substitution error had the Vols with 13 players on the field, giving LSU 1 final chance. Stevan Ridley scored on the next play, and the Vols fell 16-14 in a game they thought they had won.
On Dec. 30, 2010, the Vols led North Carolina 20-17 in the final seconds of the Music City Bowl. Clock mismanagement led to UNC panic, with as many as 18 players on the field deep in Tennessee territory. The clock struck zero, and the Vols began to celebrate. But officials ruled that while the Tar Heels had too many men on the field, 1 second remained when they spiked the football. The Tar Heels tied the game with a field goal, and then won 30-27 in double overtime.
After the season, Dooley joked that while the Vols might have finished the year 6-7, they were really 8-5 when time ran out.
No. 9: The 2019 turnaround
Tennessee began this season with an embarrassing 38-30 loss to Georgia State. The next week they blew a late lead to BYU and lost in double overtime. Then there were blowout losses to Florida and Georgia. The Vols were reeling at 1-4, and the first 9-loss season in program history looked probable.
Instead, head coach Jeremy Pruitt didn’t let his team give up hope. The Vols won 6 of their last 7 games — the lone loss at Alabama — to finish the regular season 7-5 and secure a spot in the Gator Bowl.
No. 8: Joshua Dobbs becomes the starting quarterback
Midway through the 2014 season, Tennessee quarterback Justin Worley was lost for the season due to injury. Backup Nathan Peterman was not good. Coach Butch Jones had no other choice but to give 3rd-string sophomore Joshua Dobbs a chance.
For the next 2+ years, Dobbs was the Vols’ leader. Counting 2 starts at the end of his freshman year, Tennessee went 23-12 with Dobbs taking the opening snaps. Without Dobbs, it’s hard to imagine the Vols having any of their success in 2015 and 2016.
No. 7: The 2011 Kentucky loss
The final game of the 2011 season should have been a cakewalk for the 5-6 Vols. They were facing hapless Kentucky, a team they had defeated 26 consecutive times. The Wildcats also were starting senior wide receiver Matt Roark at quarterback, a position he hadn’t played since high school. With a victory, the Vols would be bowl eligible.
Roark completed only 4 passes, but rushed for 124 yards in leading UK to a 10-7 upset. Tennessee looked disinterested … a team that had no desire to extend their season. It was perhaps the ultimate sign that Dooley would not work as head coach. But recently hired Tennessee athletics director Dave Hart gave him a 3rd year. Dooley was fired near the end of the 2012 season.
No. 6: Butch Jones’s disastrous 2017 season
Tennessee’s 2015 and 2016 seasons should have ended in Atlanta, but they never won a division title. Heading into the 2017 season, the Vols were replacing Joshua Dobbs, Alvin Kamara, Derek Barnett and many other key players that helped the Vols win 18 games the previous 2 years.
Those losses were too much to overcome. Ineffective quarterback play from Quinten Dormady and Jarrett Guarantano kept the Vols from winning a single SEC game that year. Jones was fired with 2 games to go. Interim coach Brady Hoke didn’t fare any better, losing to LSU and Vanderbilt to finish the season.
The Vols finished at 4-8, the first time in the 120+ years of Tennessee football that they lost that many games in a season.
No. 5: The Jauan Jennings catch to beat Florida
On Sept. 24, 2016, the Vols were hoping to snap an 11-game losing streak to rival Florida. They trailed 21-3 at the half and things looked bleak.
But the Vols stormed back. Trailing 21-17 in the 4th quarter, Dobbs heaved a pass down the sideline to wide receiver Jauan Jennings, who was all alone after faking out Florida defensive back Jalen Tabor.
Jennings juggled the pass, somehow stayed inbounds, and outraced the Gators defenders for the go-ahead 67-yard touchdown. The Vols never trailed again, winning 38-28.
The streak was over.
No. 4: Lane Kiffin’s Midnight Run
On Jan. 12, 2010, Vols fans woke up feeling great about the direction of their football program. A top 10 recruiting class was on the way following a 2009 season that saw 2 more wins than the year before.
By the time those same fans went to sleep, the Vols were in shambles. Head coach Lane Kiffin had unexpectedly resigned to take the job at Southern Cal. That evening, a hastily called press conference took place at the same time that Tennessee students were rioting, setting a mattress on fire in front of the UT football complex.
Kiffin’s surprise departure put Tennessee on the road to a challenging decade of football.
No. 3: “The Dobbsnail Boot”
On Oct. 2, 2016, Tennessee was leading Georgia 28-24. But with only 10 seconds left, Bulldogs quarterback Jacob Eason hit Riley Ridley on a 47-yard touchdown pass to give UGA the lead. But a series of penalties and a solid kickoff return from Evan Berry gave the Vols 1 last chance.
Dobbs heaved a pass into the Athens night. Jennings outjumped the Georgia defenders for a 43-yard touchdown, setting off a wild celebration for the Knoxville visitors.
Back in 2001, Georgia upset Tennessee in the final seconds, leading UGA announcer Larry Munson to proclaim that, “We just stepped on their face with a hobnail boot and broke their nose. We just crushed their face!”
Revenge came 15 years later, as one of the most dramatic plays in Tennessee history was immediately called, “The Dobbsnail Boot.”
No. 2: Return of the Battle Captain
During the coaching search dumpster fire of 2017 (we’ll get to that in a second), Tennessee AD John Currie was fired by UT Chancellor Beverly Davenport (who would be dismissed herself a few months later). Tennessee athletics was a mess, and they needed someone to calm the waters.
Enter Phillip Fulmer. The Hall of Fame coach was hired by Davenport to replace Currie. Fulmer had no administrative experience, but he had something much more important. Fulmer had the full trust of Tennessee fans that he had Tennessee’s best interests in mind. He hired Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, who has gone 12-12 in his first 2 seasons, with the Gator Bowl still to come next month.
You’d have won a lot of bets if you said that Fulmer, who was fired as Tennessee’s football coach in November 2008, would return 9 years later to run the Tennessee athletics department.
No. 1: Schiano Sunday
Nov. 26, 2017. A date that will live in Tennessee football infamy. Early that afternoon, news broke that Tennessee was putting the finishing touches on hiring Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano to become the 26th head coach in program history.
The response from Vols fans was immediate. They flooded social media with their disgust. They called Currie so much he ditched his cell phone for a new one. They protested on the UT campus. Later, prominent Tennessee boosters and state politicians got involved. The potential hiring of Schiano was simply too toxic. A few hours later, the University of Tennessee backed away from the deal.
It was the biggest win for Tennessee fans in recent memory, and nary a football was passed, caught or thrown.