Tennessee football: Vols greatest win vs. every current and former SEC opponent

6 Dec 1997: Jamal Lewis #31 of Tennessee leaps over a pile of players for a touchdown during the Volunteers 30-29 win over Auburn in the SEC Championship at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Georgia.
6 Dec 1997: Jamal Lewis #31 of Tennessee leaps over a pile of players for a touchdown during the Volunteers 30-29 win over Auburn in the SEC Championship at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Georgia. /
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Photo by Andy Lyons /Allsport
Photo by Andy Lyons /Allsport /

2. Auburn Tigers (No. 11)

Year: 1997 (SEC Championship)

Final score: No. 3 Tennessee wins 30-29

The Auburn Tigers and Tennessee football have played 53 times, and 51 of those times came when both were in the SEC. That included a five-year run from 1935 to 1939 and then every single year from 1957 to 1991.

But amidst all of those years, the Vols’ greatest win against them came in 1997, six years after their annual rivalry had drawn to a close. It was the perfect setting, however, for the teams to meet again given what was at stake.

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SEC expansion in 1992 to create a title game and two divisions is what ended the rivalry. But for the first five years, the Alabama Crimson Tide and Florida Gators faced each other all but one year, when the Arkansas Razorbacks backed in in 1995 only to get blown out. Still, the Vols and Auburn were supposed to have some experiences in the title game but just couldn’t make it.

Finally, in 1997, it happened. Peyton Manning’s senior year, the Vols got in not because they beat Florida but because Steve Spurrier’s team lost twice after that, to the LSU Tigers and Georgia Bulldogs. Auburn, meanwhile, had a thrilling 31-28 win at LSU early in the year and held on to win the West thanks to a game-winning field goal to beat Alabama 18-17.

So the stage was set. Tennessee-Auburn for the SEC title. What’s more is a win by the Vols would keep them in the national title hunt, but all that mattered here was the SEC title. And UT was clearly the better team. They jumped out to a 7-0 lead early after a deep pass from Manning to Peerless Price.

Then came a series of mistakes that would plague them throughout the game, though. Auburn cashed in on turnover after turnover and built a 20-7 lead. It was 20-10 after a Jeff Hall field goal heading into halftime.

In the second half, Manning hit Jermaine Copeland for a touchdown to make the score 20-17. Then the Vols got the ball back and were driving to take the lead, but Copeland bobbled a pass on the goal line that Auburn intercepted and took the other way to set up an Auburn offensive touchdown and 27-17 lead. After six turnovers, it seemed like the Vols would give this one away.

Things got even crazier. Manning regrouped and threw another touchdown pass to Price, but Auburn blocked the extra point and ran it back for two. So they were up 29-23 thanks to six turnovers and that blocked extra point. Finally, though, early in the fourth quarter, Manning hit Marcus Nash for a 74-yard touchdown pass, and the extra point put them up 30-29.

Tennessee football turned to its defense and Jamal Lewis to hold on for the win, and Manning had delivered his finest performance of his college career, throwing for four touchdowns and 373 yards. So the game was a quality win, it had a thrilling finish, and it resulted in a championship. That makes it the greatest win against Auburn the Vols ever had.

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There were other contenders, however. The Vols beat Auburn at Neyland in 1985 and 1989, both of which resulted in SEC title seasons, when the Tigers were in the top 5. In 1985, they were No. 1, so that was a close second. But the thrill of this win over Terry Bowden’s Tigers and when it came make it No. 1.