Since the Tennessee Volunteers are struggling to get a game in, much less get a win in 2020, I thought I would look back about 30 years to see where the Volunteers program stood without the threat of COVID-19 standing in the way. The Big Orange would finish 9-2-2 in 1990 under head coach Johnny Majors and that would include a 23-22 come-from-behind win over Virginia in the Sugar Bowl.
There were two ties that season for Tennessee. First a season opening 31-31 tie with Colorado followed by a 26-26 tie with Auburn a few weeks later. The Vols only suffered one SEC loss in 1990 and that was a 9-6 defeat to rival Alabama. The only other loss for the Volunteers was a 34-29 defeat at the hands of top-ranked Notre Dame.
They would win the SEC Championship in 1990 with a 5-1-1 record. If I remember correctly, there were a few disgruntled fans that year, especially following that 9-6 loss to Alabama. Still, the Vols wound up ranked 8th in the country that year and boy would the Tennessee fan base love nine wins in 2020.
I remember that 23-22 win over Virginia very well. The Cavaliers, coached by George Welsh, completely dominated the first half of the game, leading 16-0 at the half and keeping the ball away from the Volunteers. In fact, Virginia had the ball for almost 22 minutes in the first half compared to Tennessee's eight minutes. Things were looking really good for Virginia...until the halftime show.
Virginia had no real marching band. They had only a smaller pep band but still decided to take the field to entertain the fans that were gathered at the New Orleans Sugar Bowl. Their poorly planned halftime show featured an eight-minute take off on Elvis Presley. Believe me, the Virginia band totally disrespected the "King of Rock and Roll" and the crowd that day totally realized it. It was a crowd estimated to be in excess of 75,000 fans at the Superdome with more than 50,000 of them dressed in Tennessee orange. When the two teams took the field for the second half, the Volunteer fans were in a frenzy. They seemed to be determined to energize their football team and get a win over the Cavaliers and they did.
Quarterback Andy Kelly engineered a second half rally that gave the Vols the victory. Kelly would complete 24 of 35 passes for 274 yards in guiding the Volunteers to three fourth quarter touchdowns, the final one coming with just 30 seconds remaining in the game and sealing a 24-23 Vols win. Heading into the fourth quarter, Tennessee still trailed 16-3 but behind the Vols' dominant crowd, pulled it out. On that final game-winning drive, Kelly was 7 for 9 in passing for 64 yards, but it was running back Tony Thompson who scored on a one-yard run with just :31 left to give the Volunteers the win.
Even though Tennessee football would struggle occasionally for the next few seasons, the Vols would win a national championship in eight years under then head coach Phillip Fulmer as the Volunteers would enter into their most successful stretch in school history.
So even though things look less than promising right now, another national title could be just around the corner, or at least we hope so.
Randy Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org