The 1991 Tennessee Volunteers were coming off of winning two straight SEC championships, two big bowl wins, and Top 10 finishes, and the team went back to work for another run. The ’91 team is typically thought of for not living up to its potential, but take a closer look and one will see it was the culmination of the work put in by Johnny Majors and his staff after a disastrous 0-5 start just three years prior.
To say the Vols were again loaded is an understatement, but there were question marks as well. On offense, the Volunteers had great leadership returning, as the passing threat of Andy Kelly and Carl Pickens were back for one more go-around. Other receivers were going to have to step up, however, to cover the loss of vets Alvin Harper, Anthony Morgan, and Vince Moore, who all had gone on to the NFL. A running back had not stepped up through the spring to fill the shoes of Tony Thompson or Chuck Webb, but there were a few high school All-Americans on their way to try their hand. Tight Ends Mark Adams and Von Reeves returned for their senior campaign along with an experienced line, led by center John Fisher and guard Tom Myslinski.
Amazing senior led talent was at every position on defense. The defensive line featured ends Chuck Smith, Chris Mims, Todd Kelly, and Kacy Rodgers. The tackles, while not the most talented, proved more than effective, as shown by Shazzon Bradley, who finally had found a home after being tried at linebacker and end in previous years. Senior linebackers Earnest Fields, Shon Walker, and Darryl Hardy all returned for their third year as starters, which as a group had been one of the most productive of the modern era. In the defensive backfield, All-American Dale Carter returned alongside fellow seniors Jeremy Lincoln, Floyd Miley, and Mark Fletcher.
“Off to the Races”
The season started off with a bang, as the Vols travelled to Louisville and defeated the Cardinals 28-11 on a national Thursday night ESPN game. The Vols unveiled new road uniforms with orange numbers with orange bordering, but they also introduced two freshmen running backs. James “Little Man” Stewart and Aaron Hayden both went over a hundred yards rushing and each ran for a touchdown. Carl Pickens picked up the first and last scores of the game, one on a long pass from Kelly on the third play of the game, and a long punt return in the 4th Quarter.
The second game of the season saw UCLA come to Knoxville for a WTBS noon game, and by the time kickoff rolled around, the temperature on Shields Watkins field was already well over 100 degrees. Vendors ran out of ice and water before halftime as fans clamored to the concession stands (Mike Hamilton would have tweeted for days about this success). In the end, the heat and humidity was too much for the Bruins. Kelly once again hooked up with Pickens on a touchdown, and Stewart showed he was the go-to man for short yardage dive plays as he leaped in from the one after a blocked punt. The Vols won, 30-16.
Jackie Sherrill brought his Mississippi State squad to Knoxville the following week and put up a fight, with the Vols behind for the first time in the season. The Vols had to come from behind in the last quarter. Stewart went over a hundred yards for the day, and another freshman back, Mose Phillips, chipped in with 60 yards on the ground. Tight end Mark Adams was the hero of this game, catching the game-winning touchdown from Kelly with about a little over a minute to go, giving the Vols a 26-24 decision.
As the end of September came, UT looked for revenge against Auburn, who the previous year had staged a comeback tie on the Plains. This game was the last of the annual series, as the SEC would be split into divisions the following year. A record crowd saw Andy Kelly throw 3 touchdowns, including two deep passes to Pickens, one of which that went 87-yards and stood as the longest pass play in UT history until 2003. Tennessee had struggled at kicking the first three games but finally found a placekicker in freshman John Becksvoort, who went 3-3 on both field goals and extra points. The defense held its own when needed, and Tennessee won 30-21.
“0 – For – October”
The Vols got to relax with a bye week the next week, and prepare for the upcoming game in the Swamp versus Florida. The Vols had five turnovers and a blocked punt, and lost 35-18 in the Gators’ revenge match from the prior season’s beatdown in Neyland. The game was not without controversy. The week before the game, media reports circulated that former UT assistant Jack Sells, fired before the season for his role in recruiting violations, had faxed the Tennessee playbook to another former UT assistant, Ron Zook, then the Florida defensive coordinator. Steve Spurrier dismissed the whole affair, and the SEC agreed with him afterwards, leaving Tennessee and its fans with a horrible taste in their mouths from the whole “Faxgate” affair. Sells would have to leave Knoxville after being assaulted by angry Vol fans and sued Kinko’s for the actions of the employee that notified UT of what Sells had done.
Tennessee had to lick its wounds quick and prepare for that next week’s trip to Legion Field in the annual “Third Saturday of October.” This game was pivotal to keep the Vols in the SEC race, but the coaches and players all acted tight throughout the contest. The game was a battle of field goals going into the late third quarter when the Vols knocked out Alabama’s starting QB. Unfortunately, this once again proved that a foe’s second team QB was usually the most dangerous player against a UT defense and the Vols fell 24-19.
After another bye week, the Vols had shake off the disappointment of October to be ready for a five game stretch including a trip to South Bend and the annual SEC run.
“They Remember What You Do in November”
Memphis State came on the schedule at the exact right time that first weekend of November. On a beautiful fall Saturday, the Vols cleared out the bad feelings from October and won their Homecoming game in a romp over Tiger High, 52-24. The Vols set a record for offense, and Hayden set a freshman record with 169 rushing yards and three scores.
If any game in the 1991 season is remembered, it’s the game simply known as “The Miracle at South Bend.” The Vols fell behind 31-7 to the Irish in the first half before Darryl Hardy and Floyd Miley teamed up for the play of the year. As time dwindled in the 2nd Quarter, Hardy blocked an Irish field goal attempt, and Miley scooped up the ball to return it 85 yards for a miraculous touchdown. The Vols were still down 31-14 at halftime, but the play gave a little bit of hope. What would prove even more pivotal is the Irish placekicker, Craig Hendrich, had been injured during the play. In the 3rd Quarter, Tennessee’s offense started showing signs of life, and Kelly would throw a TD to tight end Von Reeves, while Notre Dame answered with a short field goal. Hendrich was further injured on the following kickoff and ruled out for the rest of the game. The Vols entered the 4th Quarter down 31-21 but gaining momentum. Larry Lacewell, the defensive coordinator for Tennessee, gambled at this point and began putting 10 men in the box to keep Notre Dame from running the ball. Hayden would cap off a drive with a four yard TD run to cut the score to 34-28 and Dale Carter, who set a Vol record for kick return yardage in the game, would come up huge with an interception. From there, Notre Dame started blitzing every play and UT made them pay, as Kelly hit Hayden on a perfectly called screen pass where the freshman was not even touched until getting bear hugged by Pickens in the end zone. UT led for the first time in the game, 35-34, but had to hold on as the Irish started driving on Tennessee’s defense, making it down to the 10-yard line when Notre Dame’s second team kicker would have his 27-yard attempt partially blocked by Jeremy Lincoln’s butt. Tennessee had completed the largest comeback in South Bend history by a Notre Dame opponent, and the Tennessee fans stormed the field to celebrate. Head coach Johnny Majors would joke on his coach’s show the next day, that the Touchdown Jesus mural was waving “no good” on the last kick and that it was just another day at the office. Even the Voice, John Ward, could happily take part as he initially blew the call on the field goal, calling it “Good! No, it was NO GOOD! NO GOOD!” I have heard many stories the past 20 years of how Tennessee fans listening to the end of the game turned off their radio in anger after his initial call, not finding out until later that Tennessee had won.
From the high of the “Miracle,” Tennessee would cruise into the annual SEC schedule, defeating Ole Miss in their last annual game 36-25 as it would be affected, like the Auburn series, by the upcoming SEC divisional split. The offense held the ball for nearly 45 minutes, and Stewart broke Hayden’s previous freshman record by going for 215 yards and two scores on the ground.
The game against Kentucky was a low scoring one, with the Vols winning 16-7 on a cold, windy day in Lexington. Defense, kicking, and the running game won this one. At one point with UT in the shadow of its own endzone and facing a 3rd and 25, Johnny Majors was able to pull out his favorite play, the quick-kick. Punter Tom Hutton booted the ball 67 yards with the wind at his back and changed field position.
The regular season finale against Vanderbilt really started before the season’s first snap, as Vanderbilt coach Gerry DiNardo tried his best to make a Tennessee-Vandy rivalry game mean something again throughout the state. He refused to name Tennessee by name, only calling them “that team on the east side of the state” or “that team in Orange.” A scuffle occurred between the teams during warm-ups and with the added motivation, the Vols rolled Vandy 45-0. Tennessee had three running backs eclipse over a hundred yards rushing for the first time in school history on the legs of Stewart, Hayden, and Phillips. Every Tennessee player dressed out for the game played some snaps. The seniors went out in style, as each was provided a chance to come off the field in their position group to the applause of the fans. The loudest cheer was for QB Andy Kelly, given a standing ovation while the heir apparent from Bryson City, NC, Heath Shuler, came into the game for some mop up time.
The Vols finished the season at 9-2 and accepted a New Year’s Day birth in the Fiesta Bowl against Penn State. The team led the game offensively the first half, but second half turnovers led to the Vols downfall to the Pedo Bears, 42-17. Although no one ever saw it coming, it would also turn out to be the last bowl game Johnny Majors would coach at Tennessee.
Pickens and Carter were named All-Americans and joined on the All-SEC team by linebacker Hardy, cornerback Lincoln, defensive ends Smith and Mims, and guard Myslinski. Seniors Earnest Fields and John Fisher, who had played together since high school in Milan, were team captains. As in the prior year, nine players from the 1991 team would be drafted by NFL teams. Pickens would make an impact for the Bengals, winning Offensive Rookie of the Year, and Carter would dominate as a safety and kick returner for the Chiefs, being voted Defensive Rookie of the Year. Smith, Mims, and Lincoln would all play major roles for their teams throughout the 90’s and make Pro Bowls along the way. Andy Kelly would go on to be a star in the Arena League, smashing almost all passing records.
In summary, the 1991 season can easily be divided into three months. The Vols cruised through the month of September, going 4-0. There were only two games in the month of October, where Tennessee lost at both the Swamp and Legion Field. When the November stretch came, the Vols rolled after being part of a “Miracle.” While they didn’t win a championship that season, the Vols showed they were as talented as anyone in the country. It was the end of a great run by 28 seniors, who would finish their last three seasons 28-6-2, two SEC titles, three straight major bowl appearances, and three top-15 finishes. Not too bad of a turnaround after the worst start in the history of the program.
Next time, we’ll take a look at 1992, a year of transition.