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. /
17 of 17
Photo by Andy Lyons /Allsport
Photo by Andy Lyons /Allsport /

1. Florida Gators (No. 2)

Year: 1998 (Home)

Final score: No. 6 Tennessee wins 20-17 (OT)

Similar to the Auburn Tigers, Alabama Crimson Tide and Georgia Bulldogs, there are multiple Tennessee football wins over the Florida Gators that came close to making this list. The 1992 rain soaked dominating win, the 2016 win to end the streak, and the 2004 last-second field goal all come to mind.

But the closest competitor was the 2001 win in The Swamp. Like this game, Florida was No. 2 and the Vols were No. 6. The result was as thrilling, and being 18-point underdogs gave that one an advantage. This one, however, ended a losing streak and resulted in a national title. That gives it the tiebreaker, even if the 2001 win is a top 5 SEC win of all time for UT.

More from All for Tennessee

Remember, the Vols entered this game heavy underdogs. Despite winning the 1997 SEC title, they still failed to beat Florida for a fifth year in a row. And they were replacing their leaders at quarterback in Peyton Manning and on defense in Leonard Little along with their top receiver in Marcus Nash, their center in Trey Teague, and their top defensive back and returner in Terry Fair.

Two weeks earlier, UT needed a pass interference penalty to hold on for a game-winning field goal drive to beat Syracuse and Donovan McNabb on the road 34-33. Once again, they would try to overcome that frustrating Florida hump.

This year, though, with Tee Martin and Al Wilson leading the defense, Phillip Fulmer and David Cutcliffe tried a different approach. Rely on Jamal Lewis, play it safe, and let Florida, who had already struggled with turnovers, make the mistakes. Then pounce when the few opportunities come. It worked like a charm.

Wilson forced three first-half turnovers, one as Florida was driving in for a touchdown on their first offensive possession. Cutcliffe and Martin then employed a fullback dive at the perfect time to catch Bob Stoops’s aggressive blitz packages off-guard, and Shawn Bryson took it to the house for a touchdown. A Jeff Hall field goal made it 10-3 after Wilson’s third forced fumble.

Florida tied it up at halftime, but the Vols used their punting edge in the second half. When they got good field position, they decided to pounce again, and Martin found Peerless Price in the end zone for a touchdown to go up 17-10. Florida responded with a big play of its own to tie it up at 17.

John Chavis’s defense kept the fourth quarter scoreless. They stopped one drive due to an epic Deon Grant interception, then they got a sack the next drive on a key third down. Spurrier’s use of alternate quarterbacks between Doug Johnson and Jesse Palmer did net him 400 passing yards, but it created those five turnovers and series of mistakes.

Meanwhile, the Vols’ offensive line was wearing Florida down after playing horrendously the year before, which allowed Lewis to get over 80 yards. In overtime, that would prove key. UT was backed up for a third and long, and Martin used good protection to scramble into field goal range on the play. Hall was then clutch again, nailing a 41-yarder to go up 20-17.

Finally, Tennessee football’s defense would need to come through one more time. After giving up a first down, they turned it up a notch. Chavis called three different blitzes. One resulted in an overthrow to the end zone. Another resulted in a play broken up by Wilson at the line, then a third resulted in an underthrow.

With all the mistakes, the Vols clearly had the mental edge. That brought on Collins Cooper to try the game-tying field goal, and that mental edge forced him to just hook the kick left. UT had won the game 20-17.

Next. Projecting the Vols' 2019 2-deep depth chart. dark

In terms of pure thrill and quality win, this matches their win in The Swamp. Also, it matches the win over Alabama in 1982 if we’re ranking SEC games. But this one has the added benefit of a national championship coming out of this, which makes it their best SEC win ever and also their best SEC win over Florida. That’s why it’s No. 1 for Tennessee football.