1. LSU Tigers (No. 21)
Year: 2001 (SEC Championship)
Final score: No. 2 Tennessee Volunteers lose 31-20
They aren’t rivals, but Tennessee football and the LSU Tigers know how to deliver heartbreak to each other. The Vols upset LSU in 1959 to ruin their national championship season behind Billy Cannon, and they ruined their homecoming after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 by coming back from a 21-0 deficit to win.
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But LSU has given UT its fair share of heartbreak, and that was never truer than in the SEC Championship game of 2001. At the time, Tennessee-Florida was still the determining factor in who won the SEC. And this year, it was moved back to Dec. 1 due to the Sept. 11 attacks with a chance to reach No. 2 in the BCS on the line. The Vols won and were heading to Atlanta.
LSU was a solid team under second-year head coach Nick Saban, who was still just a rising star. But the Vols clobbered them earlier in the year and were clearly better. So this was just a minor hump before reaching the Rose Bowl to play the Miami Hurricanes in the national title game. The Georgia Bulldogs loss earlier in the season didn’t even matter.
Heck, Phillip Fulmer let Travis Stephens and John Henderson fly to New York for college football awards presentations earlier in the week since they were up for the Doak Walker and Outland Trophies respectively. Never mind that neither won. That’s just how not-serious they took LSU. Well, UT learned on this brutal day to never take a championship game lightly.
The Vols injured Rohan Davey, the quarterback who beat them in 2000 and got the Tigers to the title game, early. Matt Mauck, a freshman, filled in and surprisingly spotted LSU a 7-0 lead. But Davey came back, and so did the Vols, as they built a 17-7 lead. Then Davey was knocked out of the game.
Unfortunately for UT, Mauck played a different style. John Chavis, who was always weak with in-game adjustments, now had to switch to facing a running quarterback. It didn’t go well, and the Vols’ sluggish offense couldn’t get going either. So LSU cut it to 17-10 at halftime and hit two more field goals in the second half to make it 17-16.
Then came the mistakes. Stephens, who did go to New York, fumbled and spotted the Tigers great field position. They cashed in with a touchdown and two-point conversion to go up 24-17. The Vols got back into the red zone but couldn’t convert on four fade patterns and settled for a field goal.
After they got the ball back, Casey Clausen was driving again. He hit Donte Stallworth deep in LSU territory, but Stallworth, who had a wrist injury earlier in the year, fumbled the ball. LSU recovered and Mauck threw what should have been a pick-six right into Julian Battle’s chest. But Battle dropped it.
Jimbo Fisher then kept the drive on the ground. Mauck carried the Tigers all the way down the field, and on fourth down on the goal line, the Tigers scored a touchdown to go up 31-20. That was the game.
This is the worst loss in Tennessee football history. The program has never recovered, as 2001 was their last top 10 season as well. And after this year, the desperation to get an SEC title grew and grew. Now, the Vols have learned never to take a championship for granted. But it was too late on this day, and they suffered a program defining loss.