I've talked about turning points in the Nick Saban era. It's funny that I don't consider this game as big a one as the 2001 Alabama game or the 2003 Georgia game, because you could argue this was one was a major turning point for Tennessee football.
The Volunteers entered the 2001 SEC Championship on a major high. They were 10-1 and had earned the SEC East title outright with a huge win at Florida in the Swamp, their first since the 1970s. And with Nebraska's thrashing at the hands of Colorado (and subsequent elimination from the Big 12 title game) two weeks earlier, Tennessee entered this game knowing that a win would likely send them to the Rose Bowl to face the Miami Hurricanes for the national championship. Casey Clausen led and offense loaded with talents like Jason Whitten, Donte Stallworth and the SEC's leading rusher in Travis Stephens. Receiver Kelley Washington had single-handedly destroyed the LSU secondary in week 3 with a then-record 256 yards receiving and a touchdown (a record that he held for all of a month or so before Josh Reed broke it), and the defense was led by stud tackles John Henderson (who was wrapping up one of the best careers in SEC history with just about every major award he could win) and Albert Haynesworth.
LSU had won four straight following what seemed like a massive loss to Ole Miss, and were suddenly the hottest passing attack in the country with Rohan Davey and Reed, who had either already won the Biletnikoff Award or was on the verge of taking it home (don't remember the actual date of the ceremony) with 1,740 receiving yards -- the highest total in the country and an SEC single-season record. Still, LSU was the prohibitive underdog. Tennesse had everything to play for, and had already beaten the Tigers 26-18 in a game that didn't feel nearly that close.
- This was LSU's first ever trip to the title game, and it reflected in the stands. Tennessee fans had devoured the tickets for this one (and my my how the entire Internet would come to benefit) and were waving roses in the stands. This was the Vols' coronation.
- And I can't say I would have disagreed at the time. The whole season-ending streak, with the complete beat down of Auburn a week earlier had just been so damn satisfying. With contributions from so many young players, including guys like Michael Clayton and Ben Wilkerson from the completely loaded 2001 recruiting class, it felt like the program was headed in the right direction no matter the result of this game. Besides, it still didn't really felt like LSU knew how to come through when it counted at the championship level yet.
The Game Itself:
- Watched this game at a friend's parent's house. The general mood was kind of muted, because again, we really were just completely geeked that LSU was actually IN this game. And frankly we'd all watched the first Tennessee game together, and we weren't looking forward to a rematch with Kelley Washington.
- One of my best friends felt very strongly that if one of LSU's backups just took the hit and Nancy Kerrigan'd Washington, the Tigers would have a shot. I'm not pointing fingers, but he knows who he is.
- And then suddenly the chances of winning dropped even more when Davey got decked trying to scramble out of bounds. A lot of fans have called this a intentional shot to take him out of the game, and I don't know that I buy that, as the player left his feet while Ro was still in bounds. But it definitely should have been flagged, and there's no way any defender gets away with something like this today. In fact I believe the penalty for a hit like this in the NFL these days is a week in the stocks while Roger Goodell throws rotten fruit at you.
- And all we knew about Matt Mauck here was that he looked like a pretty good runner -- something Davey was not in any way. A lot of people love to say this game was all about the quarterback draw, but if you look at that first touchdown it's actually a power play, complete with the pulling guard. Thanks to guys like Tim Tebow and Cam Newton were a lot more familiar with those types of QB runs.
- At the 3:29 mark, how in the hell did LSU not draw a roughing the punter?
- Just to up the difficulty level and extra notch, there goes LaBrandon Toefield out with what would wind up being a major knee injury that I don't think he ever really recovered from. As it is, I was pretty sure LSU had no shot if Davey left the game.
- Annnd there it goes. One more shot to the ribs and Ro was done for the evening and with LSU trailing by 10 at that. But again, just glad to be there. At this point, I was just hoping the Tigers didn't get embarrassed.
- But Corbello hits that field goal, and suddenly it's a 7-point game at halftime. So maybe this will at least be close, right?
- Another field goal, the defense is starting to hang on for dear life, and it's working...
- And then the big break, as Stephens coughs the ball up directly into Damian James' hands, and right into Tennessee territory. It's a one-point game, and suddenly everybody in the room is quiet and leaning forward, eyes wide. LSU HAS to score here.
- You can't say enough how much of a change-up Mauck was. Jimbo Fisher basically threw out the pro-style elements of the playbook and suddenly LSU is a spread team with a very mobile quarterback. Hell, he only had to scramble about 15 yards backwards to hit the huge 3rd and four pass that would set up the go-ahead touchdown.
- Once the momentum shifted in this one, you just saw the life completely drain out of everybody wearing orange.
- This game represented Reed's season low in receiving by a pretty considerable margin (he only had two games under the 100-yard mark on the whole year), but his two fourth quarter catches could not have been bigger.
- Give Casey Clausen credit, because he did his best to respond. An 11-play field goal drive, and on the next play he throws and 18-yard strike only to have Stallworth fumble it away. At this point I was practically floating above the sofa.
- Once LSU had the ball inside the 10, I knew that the only way they were losing this game would be on some sort of miraculous turnover that Tennessee could return for a touchdown. But a lifetime of Saints and LSU fanhood also had a large part of me waiting for it to happen, up until the moment Davis jumped over that pile and scored.
- And let the record reflect that at the 11:11 mark of this video, an Internet revolution was launched. The entire World Wide Web owes a massive debt to whichever CBS camera man spotted Lulu and Junior. Where would we all be had we never seen this image?
Remember what I said about turning points? From the UT perspective you could legitimately point to this as the beginning of what would be a very slow end for Phillip Fulmer. Over the next seven seasons the momentum the Vols lost in this game slowly continued to drain, and the program fell from the ranks of what we considered the SEC elite. There were a lot of factors. The whole SEC was getting tougher -- LSU, Auburn and Georgia were on the rise, and Florida would rise again in just a few years with Urban Meyer. Internally, Fulmer struggled to keep quality assistants around (never has an offensive coordinator seemed as important to a program as David Cutcliffe seemed to Tennessee), and recruiting seemed to tail off slowly. You look at the stars on this team, and you consider that there were also future NFL guys like Kevin Burnett, Aubrayo Franklin, Jabari Greer and Julian Battle around. Yeah, the Vols definitely had talent around, but 18 players off this team were picked in the 2002 and 2003 drafts. It never hit that level again, despite some lofty recruiting rankings.
- I don't really know how to describe how I felt after this game. As jubilation as there was in Baton Rouge -- random cars were honking, people were literally just running around campus screaming -- it just didn't seem real. Two years ago LSU was 3-8. Hell, four weeks ago we'd all pretty much been ready to run Nick Saban out on a rail. And now LSU was the SEC champion.