College football realignment has destroyed a number of great rivalries: West Virginia-Pitt, Penn State-Pitt, Kansas-Missouri, Nebraska-Oklahoma, Texas-Texas A&M, Texas-Arkansas, etc.
Within the SEC, it has meant some teams see each other way less than they did before. For instance, Auburn and Florida met 80 times between 1912 and 2002 but have met only three times since.
However, in a process of creative destruction that Joseph Schumpeter would recognize, the end of older rivalries has led to the elevation of new ones. Georgia-Tennessee is one example. Separated by a four-hour drive through the Smokies and with a significant geographic overlap in fan bases in north Georgia, eastern Tennessee, and Atlanta, Georgia and Tennessee seem like longtime rivals. However, the teams only played 21 times prior to the SEC moving to divisions in 1992 and only four times between 1937 and 1980.
They have played every year since, with the game often deciding the division title, as well as the employment status of a head coach on one sideline. The games have generally been close, with six of the last seven decided by one score. (That’s a little less likely in 2018, obviously.)
1992: Tennessee 34, Georgia 31
Georgia did not play in any of the first 10 SEC Championship Games. This loss to Tennessee in 1992 was a large reason why. Georgia had a talented team, led by Eric Zeier, Garrison Hearst, and Andre Hastings, but it could not overcome five turnovers and a huge performance from future Heisman finalist, NFL bust, and U.S. Congressman Heath Shuler.
Little was expected of Tennessee in 1992 after Johnny Majors had quintuple bypass surgery in August, leaving the team in the hands of offensive coordinator Phil Fulmer. Fulmer led the Vols to a 3-0 start with wins over Georgia and Florida, so when Majors returned and Tennessee stumbled, Fulmer was the full-time head coach by the end of the season, a turn of events that Majors did not take well. Fulmer would coach the Vols for 16 seasons, winning 152 games, two conference titles, and one national title. That all became possible because of a win in Athens in 1992.
1995: Tennessee 30, Georgia 27
Three years after almost winning the East, Ray Goff came in on the hot seat, having gone 11-10-1 in his last two seasons. With Robert Edwards at tailback, the Dawgs crushed South Carolina in the opener and went to Knoxville for a meeting with sophomore Peyton Manning.
Edwards picked up where he left off, running wild until breaking his foot in the fourth quarter. With the game tied at 27 in the fourth quarter, Kirby Smart (yes, that Kirby Smart) picked off Manning with under four minutes remaining, setting Georgia up in Tennessee territory for what could have been a winning drive that would have put Goff on track to saving his job. Then Brice Hunter dropped a key third down pass from Mike Bobo (yes, that Mike Bobo), Dax Langley missed a 53-yard field goal, and Manning drove Tennessee for the winning points at the gun.
Georgia went 6-6 and fired Goff. Tennessee went 11-1, kicking off a four-year stretch in which the Vols would go 45-5. And this butterfly effect all started with a drop by Hunter, a star who had over 1,700 yards and 16 touchdowns in the two prior seasons, leading the SEC in receptions both times.
2000: Georgia 21, Tennessee 10
What was crazy about the game was that Georgia won at all. The Dawgs had lost nine in a row to Tennessee. Jim Donnan, whose results had been declining since a 10-2 1997, needed the win badly. So did Georgia fans, who responded to finally beating Fulmer by rushing the field, tearing down the goalposts, and sacking the sideline hedges.
2001: Georgia 26, Tennessee 24
The “Hobnail Boot” game exploded in the final minute, first with Travis Stephens taking a screen pass 62 yards virtually untouched to give the Vols the lead and then by David Greene leading Georgia right back for the winning score on a pass to Verron Haynes. Cue UGA announcer Larry Munson:
Georgia would go 8-4 in Mark Richt’s first year, but the win over Tennessee, along with a victory at Grant Field to end a three-year losing streak to Georgia Tech, would portend bigger things for Georgia fans. Richt would go 10-5 against the Vols and 13-2 against the Jackets, with the start for those runs coming from P-44 Haynes.
The loss might have cost one of the most talented teams in the country a shot at Miami in Pasadena. Indeed, the ‘01 Vols could be seen as Fulmer’s last great team.
2004: Tennessee 19, Georgia 14
Richt’s tenure was also marked by a series of almosts. In 2004, he had an experienced, talented team that had won the East in the past two seasons. That team’s full potential shone in a 45-16 destruction of Nick Saban’s LSU, a team that was the defending national champion and had beaten Georgia twice in 2003.
The following week, Georgia was a substantial favorite against Tennessee, which had just been blown out at home by Auburn and was starting true freshman Erik Ainge at quarterback.
What followed was an agonizing loss for Georgia, as the Vols jumped out to a lead and made it stand up over four quarters. If you want to make Dawg fans wince, ask them about Leonard Pope’s route on this final play.
2012: Georgia 51, Tennessee 44
The Big 12 arrives in Athens. This time, Tennessee had the embattled coach, with Derek Dooley coming into 2012 at 11-14. And although he would lose (Dooley went 0-3 against the school at which his father became a legend), he did at least provide a day of ludicrous entertainment. Among the highlights:
- Tennessee rallying from 27-10 down to take a 30-27 lead in the space of 4:11 of game time;
- a 30-30 tie at the half;
- Todd Gurley rushing for 130 yards and being outshone by teammate Keith Marshall, who put up 164 yards on the ground on 10 carries; and
- the full Tyler Bray experience, throwing Tennessee back into the game several times and then committing three turnovers in the fourth quarter when the Vols were down 51-44 and had a chance to force overtime.
Georgia would end up one play away from a trip to the BCS Championship. Tennessee would finish 5-7 again and end the Dooley experiment. But for one afternoon in Athens, an excellent team was close to losing to a mediocre one because of a wild card quarterback.
2013: Georgia 34, Tennessee 31
In an imaginary world where instant replay did not exist, is there a player whose reputation would be changed more than poor Pig Howard?
In overtime, Howard lunged for the goal line but lost control of the ball:
After review, officials ruled it a fumble, and therefore a touchback for Georgia, which then hit the game-winning field goal.
2015: Tennessee 38, Georgia 31
Speaking of embattled coaches, it’s fair to ask whether Richt would still be in Athens if Reggie Davis had held onto this pass:
In a series where one catch can be the difference between a coach keeping his job or being fired, a Georgia touchdown would have left the teams tied with four minutes remaining.
If the Dawgs would have won a close game, as they had in the previous four seasons, then would Richt have been fireable at 10-2? Rationally, the judgment should be the same, because one play should not affect any assessment of a coach, but athletic directors are not always rational.
2016: Tennessee 34, Georgia 31
Ho hum, just another Georgia-Tennessee game with two lead changes in the final minute. And to outdo the 2001 game, this one pressed its last two touchdowns into 10 seconds. While Alabama dishonored Verne Lundquist’s last season with boring, undramatic excellence, Georgia and Tennessee combined for another ludicrous game that gave Uncle Verne one last chance to revel in madness.