Lost to Memphis Tigers 21-17
10-2 (7-1); No. 9 AP and Coaches; W Citrus Bowl
Not many losses are as embarrassing as Tennessee football’s loss to the Memphis Tigers in 1996. This is not the Memphis of now. They were a bad program at that point run by an incompetent athletic director, and while Rip Scherer was probably a good coach, this was a program that hadn’t made a bowl in 25 years at the time and never beaten UT.
The Vols, meanwhile, entered the year ranked No. 2 with junior quarterback Peyton Manning as a Heisman Trophy favorite. Their title hopes were dashed, though, with another loss to the Florida Gators, who would go on to eventually win the national title.
Still, a team that went 11-1 the year before while only losing to Florida could do it again. And over the course of the season, they still scored memorable wins over the UCLA Bruins, Georgia Bulldogs and Alabama Crimson Tide for the second straight year, this time with Alabama being undefeated and in the top 10.
At 6-1 and No. 6 in the country, UT traveled across the state to face a 3-6 Memphis team that had never beaten them as a program. One key thing that happened that afternoon, though, was Florida clinching the SEC East with a win over the Vanderbilt Commodores, meaning UT could not do anything but match its previous year’s production.
It’s unclear what effect that had, but what is clear is the Vols had a horrific offensive performance. A defensive struggle still saw the Vols take a 7-0 lead. But then Manning threw an interception that was returned to the Vols’ one-yard line and set up a touchdown to tie the game at halftime.
After taking a lead in the second half off another touchdown, the Vols gave up a 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to Kevin Cobb in a play where he should have been ruled down but was not and ended up winning an ESPY. Either way, the game was tied again at 14.
A field goal put UT up 17-14, though, and then the Tigers mounted their one legitimate offensive drive late in the fourth, which ended with Quadry Anderson hitting Chris Powers in the end zone. Memphis pulled off the upset to win 21-17 en route to a 4-7 season.
However, don’t forget that Tennessee football still went on to finish 10-2 and in the top 10, beating the Big Ten co-champion Northwestern Wildcats in the Citrus Bowl. And this was part of their most historic run of the modern era. Over the next two years they would win two SEC titles and a national title. So they rebounded this season and over the next three.