This Week in UT Sports History is a weekly series written by RTI columnist Lexie Little
It’s football time in Tennessee. Well, South Carolina, but close enough. The No. 16 Tennessee Vols travel to the Palmetto State this weekend to face their first opponents of the delayed 2020 season. The South Carolina Gamecocks await the men in orange and white in Columbia following Tennessee’s 20-point routing of Will Muschamp’s team in Knoxville last season. The Vols beat South Carolina, 41-21, as quarterbacks Jarrett Guarantano and J.T. Shrout each threw for more than 100 yards in the game, 229 and 122 respectively.
Football obviously stands to play out differently in 2020 as COVID-19 precautions alter the schedule, attendance, safety protocols and overall gameday experience. This year, the Pride of the Southland Marching Band will not form the T as players, coaches and staff exit the tunnel and run onto Shields-Watkins Field. Smokey, the blue tick coonhound, will likewise not run through the checkerboards and howl with fans, though Sept. 26 marks the 67th anniversary of the Mississippi State game at which students chose him as mascot.
Just as Smokey has not always served as mascot, the Vols have not always run through the T. Regardless of individual traditions, Vol Football history endures. This week in UT sports history, Rocky Top Insider takes a look back specifically at football memories as Vol Nation anticipates the season opener.
Sept. 26, 1942
Eleven years to the day before Vol faithful chose Smokey as the mascot and 78 years to the day before the Vols face South Carolina in pandemic-riddled Southeastern Conference play, Tennessee and South Carolina battled on the gridiron as war raged in Europe and the Pacific. The game, like this year’s matchup against the Gamecocks, served as the season opener on the road in Columbia. In the first game of coach John Barnhill’s second season, the stalemate in the Palmetto State ended in a 0-0 tie.
The two teams’ seasons diverged drastically following the matchup. The Vols, highly disappointed with the result, went on to win nine games with one loss to Alabama. The one loss prevented Tennessee from winning the SEC with Georgia earning the title. However, the Gamecocks faced worse disappointment, finishing the season 1-7-1 overall. Vol fans could not questions Barnhill’s leadership after Gen. Robert Neyland left for active military duty in World War II. His Vols made it to the Sugar Bowl where they beat undefeated Tulsa, 14-7.
As in 2020, the 1942 team played 10 regular season games. This year, however, the No. 16 Vols face a conference-only slate with six ranked opponents, including five in the current Top 10. The 1942 team played three top-25 matchups that year against No. 4 Alabama, No. 19 LSU and No. 4 Tulsa. Tennessee finished the season seventh overall.
Sept. 26, 1953
At the home opener against Mississippi State, halftime festivities launched a Tennessee tradition. The student body watched as coonhounds paraded onto the field as part of the Pep Club’s initiative to choose a mascot. Rev. Bill Brooks’ dog, “Brooks’ Blue Smokey,” came down the ramp last to loud cheers as the announcer introduced the hound. When he heard his name, he barked and continued to make noise as the crowd cheered louder. With the stadium rocking, the Pep Club chose Smokey, the first in a line extending to Smokey X.
The fans who yelled so loud at the half left in silence, however. Tennessee lost to the Bulldogs, 26-0. The Vols entered the season ranked no. 17. They lost their rank until they re-entered the polls in mid-November, beating Florida as the no. 18 team in the country. A loss to No. 13 Kentucky the following week once again removed Tennessee from the Top 25.
Sept. 23, 1922
Traditions formed and were broken on Sept. 23 in past years. In the home opener against Emory and Henry in 1922, the Vols donned orange jerseys for the first time. They went on to win big in the first of many large victories on that date, earning a shutout of 50-0. The next game in 1950 yet again resulted in a shutout, 56-0, against Southern Mississippi before a 45-6 win against Wake Forest in 1972.
Perhaps the most memorable win came against Louisiana-Monroe in 2000. Phillip Fulmer’s Vols put on offensive and defensive shows. They ran up the score, winning 70-3. Casey Clausen threw three of 10 touchdowns in his debut. That game marked the first since a 73-0 win against Carson-Newman on Nov. 9, 1929 that the Vols hit the 70-point mark.
In 2006, a 55-minute lightning delay before a game against Marshall forced a blip in tradition. Because of the delay, Tennessee did not run through the T for the first time since the practice started. Yet, the tradition of strong offense on that date continued. Quarterback Erik Ainge threw for 258 yards including a 47-yard touchdown pass to Jayson Swain. On just eight touches, LaMarcus Coker ran for 146 yards including an 89-yard touchdown.
The most recent game on Sept. 23 came in 2017. Tennessee beat Massachusetts in a narrow 17-13 win one week after losing to Florida by only six points in the Swamp. John Kelly rushed for 101 yards, his third 100-yard rushing game to that point in the 2017 season. The Los Angeles Rams drafted Kelly the following spring with the 176th pick overall in the sixth round of the 2018 NFL Draft. The Cleveland Browns signed Kelly to the practice squad on Sept. 9, 2020.
The next Sept. 23 Saturday rolls around in 2023.
The 2020 season starts this Saturday. The Tennessee-South Carolina game will be televised on SEC Network. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. in Columbia. Tennessee’s home opener follows on Oct. 3 as the Vols take on Mizzou at noon in Neyland Stadium. The Florida game, traditionally slated for late September, will be the final game this season. The Vols and Gators will renew their rivalry on Dec. 5 in Knoxville ahead of the SEC Championship game scheduled for Dec. 19 in Atlanta.