1. Nov. 9, 1991
No. 13 Tennessee Volunteers at No. 5 Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Final score: Tennessee Vols win 35-34
This is a pretty obvious No. 1 for Tennessee football. Teams just don’t go into South Bend and do what the Vols did back in 1991, but a senior leader in Andy Kelly made sure that would be the case. Remember, the year before, Kelly threw an interception in the end zone to lose to the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
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Heading into South Bend for this one, Notre Dame was 8-1 and very much in the national title picture. UT was 5-2. And immediately, despite forcing a three-and-out to open the game, Notre Dame looked out of their league. Dale Carter fumbled the punt after that first drive. ND recovered and easily marched into the end zone to go up 7-0.
Kelly then got the ball and was driving down the field before throwing a pick-six. It was 14-0 for Lou Holtz’s squad. After getting another stop, they showed they were too strong for the Vols and ran it in again for a 21-0 early lead.
Cory Fleming caught a touchdown pass to cut it to 21-7, but the Irish were still unstoppable on offense. They scored 10 more points to make it 31-7. And late in the half, they had the ball again in field goal range.
An attempt as time expired at the half to make it 34-7 is the key moment the Vols turned it around. Floyd Miley picked up a blocked field goal from 32 yards and ran it all the way down the field for a touchdown. All of a sudden, what was supposed to be 34-7 was now 31-14, and the Vols were back in the game.
They used the newfound momentum in the second half to slowly come back. A touchdown pass from Kelly to Von Reeves made it a two-score game. Notre Dame got a field goal, but then an Aaron Hayden run made it a one-score game.
Out of desperation, Holtz started calling all-out blitzes. And it worked for a drive. But Carter made up for his fumble with a fourth quarter interception. Phillip Fulmer, as offensive coordinator, then completed the comeback by calling a quick screen to Hayden to make Notre Dame pay for the blitz. It was beautifully executed all the way down to the end zone.
As a result, Tennessee football was up 35-34. But then they needed another defensive stand to win. The Irish drove all the way down for a game-winning field goal, and the Vols blocked their second field goal of the day to hold on for the victory.
It remains one of the most epic comebacks in college football history. This and the LSU comeback are both incredible, but we put this one on top only because of how badly outmatched the Vols looked in the first half. LSU just capitalized on mistakes. This was a turnaround of epic proportions, and doing that to Notre Dame meant something in 1991. So it’s No. 1.