Since 1995 - Insightful commentary on the Georgia Bulldogs

Post The SEC’s biggest turning point of the decade?

Monday June 15, 2009

cocknfire over at Team Speed Kills has a look at the 2002 Sugar Bowl – an improbable matchup that turned into a high-scoring track meet. cocknfire’s post focuses on the Big Ten / SEC Sugar Bowl, but that 2001 SEC championship game he mentions might have been one of the bigger turning points in the conference this decade. It was a huge stamp of legitimacy for Nick Saban’s LSU program and was also the last time a Phil Fulmer Tennessee team would play a part in the national title picture.

It’s hard to imagine Nick Saban’s LSU program “on the brink”, but that’s where they were midway through 2001 after a loss to Ole Miss. They recovered (read the link at TSK for more), got back on track with an impressive upset win over Alabama, and went on a run to win their last six games of the season. Within the span of about six weeks, Saban went from 4-3 and still unproven as an SEC coach to the head coach of the SEC champions.

Tennessee, despite the upset home loss to Georgia early in October, had risen to #2 in the nation. They had survived trips to Tuscaloosa, South Bend, and Gainesville. The game with Florida, delayed until the end of the season by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, was a thrilling 34-32 win that wasn’t just a showdown for the SEC East title; the winner would also become the presumptive favorite to earn the #2 spot in the BCS rankings. That game in itself was a bit of a turning point – instead of playing for another SEC and national title, Steve Spurrier’s Gators had to settle for an at-large bid to the Orange Bowl. Spurrier announced his decision to leave for the NFL a few months later, and it was the beginning of a few lean years for Florida fans.

After surviving those road tests and Spurrier’s last stand, a win over #20 LSU was supposed to be a formality for Tennessee, and Vol fans were making plans to head to Pasadena for a Rose Bowl clash with #1 Miami.

The 2001 SEC championship game opened with a first quarter LSU touchdown, but the Vols exploded for 17 points in the second quarter to take a 17-10 lead into the locker room. LSU inched closer with a pair of third quarter field goals but still trailed by a point entering the final period. Freshman quarterback Matt Mauck’s second rushing touchdown of the day put the Tigers up for good less than a minute into the fourth quarter following a critical Travis Stephens fumble. Domanick Davis sealed the win a one-yard touchdown run with just over two minutes left after a long six-minute drive.

The story of the game, other than Mauck’s just-good-enough relief of injured starter Rohan Davey, was LSU holding the SEC’s top rusher, Travis Stephens, to just 37 yards on the ground. The Vols did some damage through the air, but the inability to convert on the ground cost them when they missed out on a chance to answer LSU’s go-ahead score. Tennessee drove down the field and set up a 1st-and-goal at the LSU 4. No longer trusting the ground game, Tennessee’s coaches called three passes, and quarterback Casey Clausen threw three straight incompletions. Instead of tying the game with a touchdown, the Vols had to settle for a short field goal and still trailed.

The game remains the only instance out of eight opportunities since 1992 where an SEC team in line to play for the national title lost the SEC championship game. Since that pivotal game, LSU went on to win three more SEC West titles, two more SEC championships, and two national titles. They even survived a coaching change along the way. Tennessee managed to return to the SEC championship game in 2004 and 2007, but they were clear underdogs each time and couldn’t upset the 2004 undefeated Auburn team or the 2007 national champion LSU team. The Vols never again finished in the top 10 under Fulmer and were even left out of the final poll in three of the next seven years.

Can you think of many other games in recent SEC history that sent the two teams in such different directions? The 2006 Florida “jump pass” win over LSU was certainly a key moment in the rise of Urban Meyer’s Florida program, but LSU rebounded to beat Florida and win the national title the following year.

5 Responses to 'The SEC’s biggest turning point of the decade?'

Subscribe to comments with RSS

  • Nail, meet Head.

  • I’m sorry, that made no sense at all.

    But, yes I agree wholehearedly. I’m looking at my ticketstub for that game now. Heartbreaking for Vols. The beginning of the end for Fulmer.

  • Sad night for the Vols…much worse than we all realized at the time. I`ll never forget how all the ladies left their orange roses behind, hidden under the seats at the end of the game.

  • ON the other hand, I became famous that night.

  • Hobnail_Boot

    June 22nd, 2009
    8:05 am


    Not as striking as that game, but the 2006 UGA-Auburn game sticks out. You had Auburn ranked #5 at home against a 6-4 Georgia team who’d already lost to both Vanderbilt and Kentucky. We all know what happened.

    The following 2+ years saw UGA go 23-5 (including 11 in a row at one point), 3 bowl wins, a #2 national finish, and a #1 NFL draft pick.

    Over that same time, Auburn went 16-11 with losses to Vandy and MSU included. They missed a bowl game and fired their long-time coach.