Tennessee football: Five openers Vols nearly lost to non-Power Five teams

KNOXVILLE, TN - SEPTEMBER 3: Dan Burks #34 of the UAB Blazers is brought down by Jason Hall #94 and Raymond Henderson #97 of the Tennessee Volunteers on September 3, 2005 at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tennessee. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
KNOXVILLE, TN - SEPTEMBER 3: Dan Burks #34 of the UAB Blazers is brought down by Jason Hall #94 and Raymond Henderson #97 of the Tennessee Volunteers on September 3, 2005 at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tennessee. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images) /
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Photo Doug Pensinger/ALLSPORT
Photo Doug Pensinger/ALLSPORT /

3. 1989

Colorado State Rams at Tennessee Volunteers

Final Score: Tennessee wins 17-14

Entering 1989, nobody knew what to make of Tennessee football. The Vols had started off 0-6 the year before, and Johnny Majors was almost done after an underwhelming 12-year stint on Rocky Top with only one SEC title, one top 10 finish and two top 25 finishes. But they regrouped to win their final five games.

Then Majors hired two new coordinators, promoting offensive line coach Phillip Fulmer to run the offense and tapping Doug Mathews to run the defense. Still, nobody knew what to make of a team on a five-game winning streak, and this opening game didn’t make anything clearer.

The Vols were hosting a Colorado State Rams that had gone 1-11 and 1-10 the previous two years and were under the leadership of new head coach Earle Bruce. Simply put, UT was supposed to win this game in dominating fashion, even if they were going to be like the 1988 team.

That didn’t happen. Tennessee football did build an early lead, but it was all from trick plays and luck. They went up 7-0 thanks to a touchdown off a fake reverse. Then, in the third quarter, CSU was only down 7-6 and set to get the ball back. But they had a 12-men on the field penalty with UT set to punt, giving the Vols a first down. They would score another touchdown on that drive.

In the fourth quarter, the Vols built a 17-6 lead. But then they got the ball back, only to fumble it and set up Colorado State touchdown and two-point conversion to make it 17-14. UT held on for an ugly win with that score, but at that point, nobody thought they were anything special.

How wrong they were. This game was an aberration. The next week, they would beat the No. 6 UCLA Bruins 24-6 on the road, and three weeks later, they would beat the No. 4 ranked Auburn Tigers. Majors’s team finished 11-1, co-SEC champions and in the top five after winning the Cotton Bowl. It ushered in a legendary 16-year run by the Vols.