Tennessee opening games

Marvin Westwestwords

Philosophy quiz to condition the mind before the Tennessee opener against Georgia Tech – choose one:

(a). One game does not a season make.

(b). How you start doesn’t matter as much as how you finish.

(c). Openers aren’t all that important until you lose one.


1926: Robert R. Neyland’s first game was 13-0 over Carson-Newman. Low risk, no record of celebration.

1939: The season when the Vols did not permit a point started with a 13-0 triumph over North Carolina State. Think Bob Suffridge.

1951: National championship team opened with a hard-fought 14-0 victory over Mississippi State. Hank Lauricella threw a TD pass and Ted Daffer blocked a Bulldog punt. Both TDs in first quarter.

1956: One of my favorite teams defeated Auburn, 35-7, in the opener. A decision the previous November was relevant. Coach Bowden Wyatt declined an invitation to the Gator Bowl because Auburn was to be the opponent. He didn’t want to give the Tigers eight months to look at film of his single wing.

1967: Fifty years ago, Doug Dickey took a really good team to Los Angeles to play UCLA in the opener. Vols failed to tackle Gary Beban and lost 20-16. They won the next nine.

1968: In one of the great drives in Tennessee history, Bubba Wyche led the Vols from 17-9 behind to a dramatic tie with Georgia. Bubba completed a touchdown pass to Gary Kreis and a two-point conversion to Ken DeLong — after time expired. There was other excitement. This was the first game on Tartan Turf, sometimes called Doug’s Rug.

1981: Tennessee lost the opener at Georgia, 44-0. A week later was almost as bad. John Majors said: “We got tromped.” Those Vols got it together and won eight games.

1985: Tony Robinson scorched UCLA for 387 yards in building a 26-8 fourth-quarter lead. Enough already? Tony merely handed off during the final two possessions. The Bruins responded with two stops, scored two touchdowns, two 2-point conversions and stunned the house with a 26-26 tie.

1989: Because No. 6 UCLA was second on the schedule, Tennessee’s plan against first foe Colorado State was to not show too much. The Vols almost didn’t show enough. They won 17-14.

1990: Tennessee and Colorado played to a 31-31 tie in the inaugural Disney Pigskin Classic in Anaheim. The Buffs led by 14 in the fourth quarter before Andy Kelly hit Carl Pickens for a touchdown. Chuck Webb scored on a draw with 2:25 left. The Vols got one last chance, a 25-yard Webb run that wasn’t long enough.

1994: UCLA won, 25-23. Jerry Colquitt, after waiting almost forever behind Heath Shuler to become the quarterback, suffered a terrible knee injury on the seventh play of his first start. Todd Helton, Branndon Stewart and the kid with “sweaty palms,” Peyton Manning, were replacements.

1998: The 34-33 victory at Syracuse was the first step toward the national championship. Noon kickoff at brutally hot Carrier Dome, an overheated oven named for a cooling company. Tee Martin debut was less hot, nine for 26 for 143. Donovan McNabb was some better — 22 of 28 for exactly 300 yards. Jamal Lewis (141 on 20 carries) helped Tennessee.

The Vols appeared safely ahead but Syracuse scored and scored again. Martin unraveled a 55-yard scramble on third and 10. Peerless Price caught his second TD. Syracuse countered with a field goal. Martin fumbled, Syracuse recovered and kicked another three-pointer. If you are keeping score, that made it 33-31 Syracuse. It was getting late.

Tennessee tried to answer but stalled. Martin threw incomplete on fourth down. Game over.

But it wasn’t. An official finally found his flag and dropped it at the spot of pass interference. It was a stunning turn of events against the home team but the call was correct.  Tennessee cashed in that one last chance for the Jeff Hall winning kick.

It was the greatest opening game in several lifetimes. Tennessee-Georgia Tech may not measure up.

Marvin West invites reader reaction. His address is [email protected]

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