Orange Memories, 1996
After a season in which they finished 11-1 and ranked third in the country, the Volunteer nation looked forward to the new season with hope that the year would bring an SEC championship and possibly even a national title. Voters agreed the Vols would be in the thick of the chase, as the Vols were ranked #2 in both the AP and USA Today/Coaches Poll and picked by some voters to win it all. After all, the Vols were returning most of their starters and were still being led by quarterback Peyton Manning.
Coach Phillip Fulmer would have loved to echo those sentiments, but he knew there was work to be done before the start of the season. While almost all of the skill players returned along with Manning and Jay Graham, the question mark would be on the offensive line, which had lost the leadership of three four-year starters. The line would have to be rebuilt with only a few experiences players and would be reshuffled throughout the season.
Coach John Chavis returned a veteran, hard-hitting defense led by returning All-SEC defensive end Leonard Little, linebackers Tyron Hines and Al Wilson, and a loaded secondary including Tori Noel, Raymond Austin, Terry Fair, and Jason Parker. The defense only had two new starters for the season, and both had played extensively the prior season. As good as the defense played at times in 1995, this unit was looking to be even better.
Tennessee hosted UNLV in the first ever meeting of the schools on a hot evening on the last day of August. The 1996 season started with a record 106,212 in attendance, thanks to the addition of the new north endzone upperdeck at Neyland Stadium, and marked the 75th anniversary of the opening of Shield-Watkins Field.. The Vols didn’t take long to get the scoring machine rolling. Terry Fair energized the crowd with a 51-yard punt return to set up a 14-yard score by Jay Graham. On the next possession, the familiar calling of Manning to Kent rang again with a 63-yard scoring strike. Graham followed up again with a 1-yard plunge and the game was all but over in the first quarter, with the Vols up 21-0. In the second quarter, both Mark Levine and Manning got one-yard scores to take a 35-3 halftime lead. The third quarter matched the first, as the Vols scored another 21 points behind another Levine run, a 47-yard fumble return by Terry Fair, and a 10-yard run by Jermaine Copeland. Coach Fulmer cleared the bench in the fourth quarter, and freshman linebacker Eric Westmoreland got the last score of the game, on a returned fumble caused by fellow freshman Mikki Allen. The Vols won an easy opener, 62-3 over the Rebels. Manning had near 300 yards passing with Ken and Nash both going over the century mark receiving. Al Wilson led the defense with seven stops and two TFL’s. Jermaine Copeland was everywhere on the field, playing quarterback, wide receiver, and returning punts.
A week later, Tennessee hosted UCLA in a primetime CBS game that played out like most games in the Vols-Bruins series. Manning scored on a one-yard sneak to put the Vols ahead 7-3 in the first quarter. After a 69-yard pass and run by Nash, Manning would connect with Eric Lane on a 6-yard score, but UCLA would come back by returning a Manning interception for a touchdown. Manning would give the Vols a 21-10 lead before halftime with another 1-yard sneak. UCLA got the only points in the third with a field goal, and with just under 12 minutes left in the game, Terry Fair made the highlight reel with an 86-yard punt return for a score. UCLA would not stay down, however, and connected on an 88-yard touchdown pass to cut the game to 28-20. With the outcome in doubt, Manning led the offense downfield and after a brilliant pump-and-go, connected with Kent on the clinching 53-yard scoring strike. The Vols won 35-20 after a hard fought struggle with the always tough Bruins. For the second straight game, Manning had close to 300 yards passing and both Kent and Nash had over 100 yards receiving. Tyron Hines led the defense with 10 tackles, two TFL’s, and a fumble recovery.
Since the 1995 season ended, most football fans in America had the date of September 21, 1996 circled. It was being hyped as another game of the century, as the #2 Volunteers hosted the #4 Florida Gators in front of a then-collegiate record crowd of 107,608. It was dubbed a battle of Heisman hopefuls between Manning and Florida’s All-American Danny Wuerffel. Mother Nature must not have got the memo, as it was a dark and rainy day in Knoxville. It certainly met the mood of Volunteer fans, who saw the Vols drop to a 35-0 deficit in the first twenty minutes of the game. Manning finally got the Vols on the board in the second quarter with a 72-yard bomb to Peerless Price, trying to start a comeback. Manning led the Vols to 23 points in the second half on three touchdown passes but could not overcome the early deficit, with the Vols dropping the game 35-29. Manning broke school passing records, going 37 of 65 for 492 yards with four touchdowns, but four interceptions and two fumbles were the Vols undoing. In the loss, Peerless Price had his first 100-yard game and Kent became the Vols’ all-time receiving yardage leader to go along with his record of career receptions and touchdown receptions. The Vols would have almost two full weeks to lick their wounds, and try to get over by the disappointment of yet another Florida loss.
Disappointment gave way to determination, as almost two weeks later the Vols appeared in a rare ESPN Thursday night game, travelling to Memphis to play Ole Miss. Media played up the fact Manning would be going against his father’s school, where Archie Manning is considered a legend. The teams traded field goals before the Vols took a 17-3 lead into halftime, behind a 31-yard run by fullback Eric Lane and a one-yard dive by Graham. The Vols put the game out of reach with 21 points in the third stanza. Craig King’s interception led to a five-yard Manning pass to Nash and Leonard Little’s sack of the Rebel QB forced a fumble that Bill Duff picked up for a second score. Following the quick scoring blitz, Mark Levine scored from seven yards out and Hall added a field goal to finish the scoring at 41-3. The Vols were led by Graham’s first 100-yard game of the season and the play of Little, the SEC Defensive Player of the Week after his performance of five tackles, three sacks, and two forced fumbles.
Due to the Thursday game, the Vols had a few extra days to prepare for their trip to Athens to play Georgia in an ESPN night game. Bulldog fans thought for sure they had a shot at winning to keep the Vols’ current winning streak from going to six. They would be disappointed, as the Vols never trailed. The first half was a contest of field goals, with the Vols leading 9-3 at intermission. The offense finally punched one in with a Graham one-yard dive. Manning followed up on the next offensive drive by dodging the Bulldog rush long enough to find Kent alone in the end zone for another score. Georgia answered with a Robert Edwards run; the first rushing touchdown of the season the Volunteer defense had given up. Manning showed why he was one of the best in the country on the following drive with two plays for his career highlight reel. With the Vols driving with just under a minute in the third quarter, Manning got tripped dropping back and still was able to throw a 15-yard completion to Jermaine Copeland. The Vols opened the fourth quarter on third down and inches from the five yard line. Manning attempted a QB sneak for the first down, but was completely stood up and knocked backwards, but not down. Manning began backpedaling to his right, with players running a fire drill. Manning wondered back to the 20-yard line before finding Nash breaking open in the back corner of the end zone for a miraculous, school-yard style touchdown. With a wide grin on his face coming to the sidelines, Manning would tell Coach Fulmer, “Good call!” But Georgia was not done yet, as they drove for a touchdown of their own. The game was still in doubt until Raymond Austin and Terry Fair both had interceptions to seal the outcome, 29-17. Manning finished 31 of 41 for 371 yards and two scores, and tied a school record with 11 straight completions at one point.
The Alabama game would come two weeks later, this time on the fourth Saturday of October. No matter the day, these two teams would meet for another classic matchup. Defense led the way throughout the game, as Tennessee found itself behind 13-0 in the third quarter. Manning had been harassed by a stacked Alabama defense all night, but finally broke it, finding Kent on a quick pass to the middle of the field that the senior took 54 yards for the score. In the fourth quarter, Terry Fair intercepted Tide quarterback Freddie Kitchens and took the ball all the way back for an apparent score, but was waved off due to a block in the back penalty during the run back. Jay Graham finished what Fair started with a lunging five-yard touchdown run to tie it up. The Vol defense held Alabama and late in the quarter, with the ball at the 21-yard line, Graham made the play of the day. Taking the ball off right tackle, he outran the Tide defense down the sideline for a magical 79-yard touchdown, the longest of his career. The Tide tried to make it a comeback, moving the ball into Tennessee territory as time wound down. On fourth down, Leonard Little forced a Kitchens fumble that was recovered by Jonathan Brown to seal the 20-13 win. Graham, with his 128 yards and two touchdowns, set a new school career rushing record with 13 100-plus yard games. For his efforts, he was named SEC Offensive Player of the Week. It was another hard fought game in the series, and the Vols had now won two in a row over the Tide.
The Vols had to temper their joy for the win over the Tide, as a road trip to South Carolina came up next. On a windy day where the Vols were favored heavily, it took a fourth quarter push to put down the Gamecocks for good. The defense came up with the first big play of the game, as Raymond Austin forced a fumble that linebacker Nick Jester recovered. This set up Manning to lead the Vols inside the USC 10-yard line, where Jay Graham got the score off a six yard burst. However, USC tied it with a drive their own. The Tennessee offense looked to take over the game in the second quarter, when Manning hit Andy McCullough in stride for a 48-yard touchdown. Peerless Price matched his Ohio high school teammate with a score his own, taking a reverse 54 yards to paydirt to give th4 Vols a 21-7 lead at halftime. The Vol offense got bogged down in the third quarter, and USC put another score on the board to cut the margin 21-14. In the fourth quarter, All-SEC defensive end Leonard Little was lost for the remainder of the season with a torn ACL. The junior was having an outstanding day to the point he was injured, having seven tackles, two TFL’s, and 2.5 sacks. Even without Little, the defense held the Gamecocks, and the Vols scored ten straight points to get a 31-14 win. Manning once again threw for over 300 yards and had two touchdowns, while Joey Kent had his seventh straight game with over 100 yards receiving. Al Wilson and Tyrone Hines combined for 20 tackles and a sack in the game.
The old saying is that “streaks are made to be broken.” For Tennessee fans, certain streaks should go on forever, especially when it is against the Memphis Tigers. But in a miserable game where the Vols looked disinterested and unprepared, the Tigers won in one of the largest upsets in NCAA history. The game was tied at 7-7 in the third quarter when Manning hit Jay Graham for an 11-yard score. On the ensuing kickoff, Memphis returner Kevin Cobb was spun down by UT defenders. His elbow hit the ground, but the official never ruled him down and he continued on for a 95-yard touchdown return to the game back up. Jeff Hall gave Tennessee a 17-14 lead, but the Tigers stole the game in the final moments, going on a 69-yard drive for the winning touchdown. The record crowd in the Liberty Bowl rushed the field and Tiger fans brought down the goal posts. To this day, it is one of the most unbelievable losses Tennessee has had to endure. The Vols continuously tried to set up a running game, but netted only 85 yards on the game with a 1.7 YPC average. Manning had almost 300 yards passing but had two costly interceptions. The defense had essentially shut down the Tigers until the final drive, when it went into a prevent. No players or coaches could give a good reason for Tennessee’s performance. It marked the first Volunteer loss in the month of November since the 1990 game against Notre Dame.
Vol fans worried about the how the loss to Memphis would affect the final three game stretch. The first half against Arkansas almost confirmed those fears, as the Vols played sluggish and was tied with a lowly Razorback squad 14-14 at halftime. Terry Fair brought the team and fans to life in the third quarter, with a textbook 86-yard punt return for the go-ahead score, and the Vols never looked back. The defense held Arkansas and the offense went down the field, where Manning and Kent connected for a seven yard score to take a 28-14 lead to the fourth. Things got worse for Arkansas, as the Vols exploded with a 27-point run to finish the game. Jeff Hall connected on two field goals, and Manning hit Kent again. From there the bench cleared out. Highly touted freshman running back Brian Darden saw some action, and got his first collegiate score on a 12-yard scamper. But it was fellow freshman Dwayne Goodrich that would steal the show in the fourth quarter, recovering two fumbles and showing off his moves as he intercepted an Arkansas pass and returned it for the final score of the game. The Vols triumphed 55-14 due to the second half onslaught.
In the final home game for 19 seniors, 106,000 packed Neyland Stadium on a cold, late November afternoon to watch the Vols take on the Kentucky Wildcats. After spotting Kentucky an early field goal, Peerless Price hauled in a Manning pass for an 80-yard score. After a defensive stop, Manning led the Vols into the red zone, and Graham scored from seven yards out. Kentucky answered with a score of their own to end the first quarter 14-10. It would be all Vols from that point forward, scoring the next 42 points of the game. A Chester Ford dive and a 38-yard Manning to McCullough score gave the Vols a 28-10 lead at the half. The Vols would bust out for four scores in the third period to finish off the Wildcats. Manning again connected with Price, this time on a 59-yard pass. Jay Graham finished up his final home game with a 35-yard run where he made a nifty move to get to the corner. Senior Raymond Austin made his mark, intercepting a pass and returning it for a touchdown. Jermaine Copeland slid to his role as backup quarterback, and finished the scoring with a 30-yard run. The Vols won easily, 56-10.
The following week the Vols made the trip west to Nashville to finish out the season against rival Vanderbilt in an ESPN night game where the weather kept things tight. On a cold and rainy night where the wind gusts made passing a chore, the Vols had to grind out the win against the Commodores. Most of the offense came on the ground, where Jay Graham proved to be the MVP of the game, rushing for 99 yards and the first score of the game. Senior linebacker Tyrone Hines provided the difference for the Vols, returning a Vanderbilt fumble 61-yards for the game deciding touchdown. Tennessee gave up an 82-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter, but otherwise shut down Vandy’s offense. The Vanderbilt defense, headed by defensive coordinator Woody Widenhofer, gave Manning a tough game for the second year in a row and limited him to just 163 yards passing for the game, as the Vols edged the Commodores 14-7.
The Vols finished the regular season with a 9-2 record and ranked #9 in the polls. Tennessee again had several record breaking performances, mainly from the arm of their junior quarterback, Peyton Manning. Manning became the first passer in Tennessee history to go over 3,000 yards in a season. He set single game and season records for passing and total offense due to his efforts. While not heavily pushed after the Florida game, Manning finished eighth in Heisman balloting. Senior receiver Joey Kent set new records in pass receptions, yardage, and touchdowns for both a season and career. While not having as successful a season as in 1995, Jay Graham finished his career with the most career rushing attempts at 540 carries and most career games with 100 yards or more rushing, with 13. Tennessee had never had such a prolific offensive trio in its history.
The Florida Gators won the SEC Championship and would play for the National title in the Sugar Bowl, led by the Heisman Trophy winner, Danny Weurffel. Again shut out of the Bowl Alliance, Tennessee accepted the invitation to the Citrus Bowl for the second straight year and the third in the prior four. It would be from this that Steve Spurrier would joke to the Florida boosters that “you can’t spell Citrus without UT.” In almost a replay of the media circus that followed Heath Shuler for the ’94 Citrus Bowl, everyone wondered whether this would be the last time Peyton Manning would play for the Volunteers. Manning downplayed the media, saying he would not make a decision until after the bowl game and after he had researched everything. Still, people couldn’t help having a sense of déjà vu.
Facing #11 Northwestern, the Vols raced out to a 21-point lead in the first quarter behind Manning’s two touchdown passes and 10-yard run on a quarterback keeper. Northwestern fought back to tie the game 21-21, but Tennessee struck quick with Manning hitting Kent on a crossing route that Kent took 67 yards for the go-ahead touchdown. Manning got the ball back with just a minute on the clock and led the Vols downfield with quick passes, and a Hall field goal gave the Vols a 10-point lead at halftime. In one half of play, Manning had already thrown for nearly 300 yards and three touchdowns. The Volunteer defense got the only score in the third with less than a minute off the clock, when Tyrone Hines took an interception back for a score down the sideline without being touched. In the fourth, Hall provided another field goal and after a Northwestern score, Manning finished the game with a touchdown to tight end Dustin Moore. The Vols won another Citrus Bowl, 48-28, in one of Peyton Manning’s finest performances. Manning threw for a Citrus Bowl record 408 yards and four touchdowns. Calling it a day on the sideline, Manning played up the Tennessee chants of “one more year!”
Tennessee finished with a 10-2 record and ranked #9. Florida defeated arch rival Florida State in the Sugar Bowl to win the National Championship. With the season over, Manning had plenty of time to make a decision on his future. While the NFL declaration date for underclassmen is within the first two weeks of January, Manning had until March as he was graduating with a degree in just three years. The question of staying or going would hang like a cloud over the football program.
On March 5, 1997, Manning held a press conference to make his announcement, which was televised across the state. After giving and few remarks and thanking the people he had talked to and received advice from, he finally provided his answer.
"I made up my mind and I don't expect to ever look back. I am going to stay at the University of Tennessee." The press room exploded into cheering and applause. Manning had surprised everyone with his announcement, stating he wanted one more year to enjoy college, his coaches and teammates and not look back and wander, “what if” had he chosen to go pro.
With his decision final, the Volunteers were ready for one last ride with #16 at the driver’s seat.
Until next time, when we make a “Drive to the Dome.”