Yes, he belongs on this list. No, Peyton Manning did not choke in every big game while with Tennessee football. It’s time to put an end to one of the greatest myths in the history of the Vols. That myth is all about the Manning “choking” tendency while on Rocky Top.
The narrative is that Manning failed to beat the Florida Gators and didn’t win any national championships, which is why he lost the Heisman and never gets the accolades he deserves from his college days. But in the one title game he potentially could have played for, against the Nebraska Cornhuskers, he was hurt, and the defense was useless in stopping Ahman Green, who rushed for an Orange Bowl record of 206 yards.
Engaging in the Florida debate, Manning averaged 390 yards and three touchdowns in his three starts against the Gators. He threw for over 450 yards in 1996 and four touchdowns as the Vols lost 35-29. Meanwhile, the year before, he spotted the Vols a 30-14 lead and threw for over 300 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. But the defense gave up 48 straight points.
So when he played the Gators, Manning did his part. The interception stat line isn’t great, as he averaged two a game, but everything else is, and the final two years he played with an inexperienced offensive line and then no true running back in 1997.
So proving he came up huge against the Gators, what about everybody else? Well, Manning went 3-1 as a starter against the Alabama Crimson Tide, leading Tennessee football to a 41-14 victory in Birmingham in 1995, which was their first win in the series in a decade at the time.
Manning also went 3-1 in bowl games, including a bowl game passing record against the Northwestern Wildcats in 1997. He also went 3-0 as a starter against the Georgia Bulldogs.
Finally, in the biggest game of his career, Manning put on the greatest performance ever in an SEC game. I really mean that. Tennessee faced the Auburn Tigers for the 1997 SEC Championship. The Vols committed six turnovers and had an extra point blocked and run back for two.
By the way, none of that was Manning’s fault. His stat line showed two interceptions. But both were dropped passes by the receiver.
Still, Manning overcame all of that to throw for over 370 yards and four touchdowns, leading the Vols back from a 20-7 deficit and a 27-17 halftime deficit to win 30-29. So yes, Manning came up huge in big games for the Vols. He’s one of the greatest big game performers in school history. And that’s why he’s on this list.