This Week in UT Sports History – Dec. 21st-27th

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    (Photo courtesy of Tennessee Athletics)

    This Week in UT Sports History is a weekly series written by RTI columnist Lexie Little

    The wild regular 2020 SEC football season came to a close over the weekend as the Vols (3-7) lost their senior day game to No. 5 Texas A&M (8-1), 34-13. Meanwhile, the No. 10 men’s basketball team (4-0) stayed hot, hitting the century mark against Tennessee Tech (0-8) in a Friday win in Knoxville, 103-49. Kellie Harper and the Lady Vols (5-1) faced UNC Greensboro (1-7) at home on Sunday, picking up their fifth win of the season with a 66-40 victory.

    Tennessee football received a surprising invitation to face West Virginia in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl following an abysmal conference-only season. The Vols started the season 2-0 before dropping six consecutive games. Their third win came against Vanderbilt on Dec. 12 in a 42-17 battle for state bragging rights. However, Vol fans found little solace in meager brags, as Vanderbilt finished the season winless, 0-9, for the first time.

    While the Tennessee tradition of postseason play continues this year, Rocky Top Insider takes a look back at previous bowl games this week in UT sports history:

    Dec. 22, 1984

    The Big Orange readied themselves for a blowout. Leading Maryland 21-0 at halftime, Tennessee seemed to have the 1984 Sun Bowl all wrapped up as an early Christmas gift for fans. Then, not unlike games in the 2020 season, the Vols failed to show up for the second half. Maryland scored 22 points in the third to take a marginal lead. Both teams picked up six more points, but of course, Tennessee still trailed by one. Maryland won, 28-27.

    Tennessee controlled the game early with quarterback Tony Robinson setting the tempo. Robinson connected with Tim McGee to set up strong pass plays while tailback Johnnie Jones slipped through the Terrapin defensive line.

    Inspired after the half, Maryland roared back for 22 points until Pete Panuska brought the Terps’ momentum to a jarring halt. On a Terrapin kickoff, Panuska sprinted for a 100-yard return and the go-ahead touchdown. His return marked a Sun Bowl record as he became the fifth player in NCAA history to return a kickoff for 100 yards.

    Maryland answered, and Robinson and company took the field for one last drive with around two minutes remaining. Seeking a last-second field goal to win it, Robinson called for the snap. Defensive back Keeta Covington blitzed to jostle the ball from Robinson’s grip on the 23-yard line, effectively ending the game and sending the Vols home without a trophy.

    The 1984 Tennessee team earned a record of 7-4-1 (3-3 SEC). The Vols had played in another matchup with a final score of 28-27 earlier that season. Tennessee beat Alabama at home on the Third Saturday in October, 28-27, after losing to eventual conference champion Florida a week prior, 43-30. Florida’s SEC championship title would be vacated because of NCAA rule violations committed under head coach Charley Pell, who resigned after the third week of the season.

    Dec. 28, 1957

    Though the Vols lost to the Aggies to close the 2020 season, Tennessee beat Texas A&M in a battle of defenses on Dec. 28, 1957 in Jacksonville, Florida. The two teams faced off in the Gator Bowl, legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant’s last game as Texas A&M’s head coach. Tennessee won, 3-0, in the lowest-scoring Gator Bowl matchup.

    Bogged down on a muddy, wet field, the score stood knotted at zero until 5:30 remained on the clock. The Gator Bowl record crowd of 43,709 sat in anticipation. Tennessee strung together a drive with tailback Bobby Gordon crashing into Heisman winner John David Crow, one that left both rattled as the two teams pushed on. Inside the 20-yard line, Gordon held for placekicker Sammy Burklow in an attempt to win the game. The kick went up, and it was good.

    Bryant’s run as the rugged coach of the Aggies ended with a loss to the orange and white. He would see several more of those in his career, going to Alabama for his famous stint as the man who got the Tide rolling. Texas A&M, previously ranked No. 1 in the 1957 season, would not return to a bowl game until 1968. Similarly, Tennessee faced a dry spell in the postseason until 1965 when Doug Dickey led the Vols to a Bluebonnet Bowl win against Tulsa, 27-6.

    Head coach Bowden Wyatt led Tennessee to an 8-3 record in 1957. After losing the season opener to Auburn, 7-0, the Vols won six consecutive games. The streak came to an end with a loss to Ole Miss on Nov. 16 in Memphis before another loss to Kentucky in Lexington a week later. A 20-6 victory against Vanderbilt earned the Vols a No. 13 rank and the trip to Jacksonville. The Vols fell to 4-6 the following season, though they beat Bryant’s Alabama team, 14-7.

    Dec. 27, 1969

    Tennessee seems to retain a tradition of narrow decisions in bowl games. After setting a Gator Bowl record in 1957 with a crowd of 43,709, the Vols returned to the same bowl to yet again draw a record crowd in 1969 with 72,248 in attendance. Of course, the latter statistic probably had much to do with Tennessee’s opponent: Florida.

    The Gators entered the home state matchup as the underdogs. Tennessee had earned the SEC champion title in 1969, Nevertheless, fans anticipated a good game from two teams who impressed during the regular season. Florida ultimately took all the glory, hanging on to win by one point, 14-13.

    The SEC rivals had not faced one another during the regular season. Tennessee beat three ranked opponentson its way to No. 11. With wins over No. 17 Auburn, No. 20 Alabama and No. 11 Georgia, all signs pointed toward an undefeated season until No. 18 Ole Miss spoiled the Vols’ run on Nov. 15 in a 38-0 shutout. Tennessee bounced back against Kentucky and Vanderbilt, moving to 9-1 on the season.

    Florida entered the matchup 8-1-1, having lost to No. 17 Auburn on Nov. 1 before a 13-13 tie with No. 16 Georgia a week later at Gator Bowl Stadium in Jacksonville, the traditional neutral site of the matchup between the border states. The Gators retained an advantage in playing at the stadium.

    Televised nationally on NBC, the game marked the bowl’s 25th anniversary. Drama swirled well before kickoff. Doug Dickey, in his sixth season at Tennessee, found his name in the headlines two days before kickoff. Word broke before the two teams faced off that he would leave the Vols for Florida, his alma mater. Dickey had been named SEC Coach of the Year following the regular season.

    The Vols, including sophomore offensive guard Phillip Fulmer, would lose both the game and their coach to Florida. Three days after the loss, Dickey became 15th head coach in Gator history. Florida quarterback John Reaves said postgame the team dedicated the win to defensive coach Gene Ellenson, who players wanted to replace head coach Ray Graves. Ellenson likewise wanted the job.

    “They wanted to win this one for the ‘Gray Fox,’” Ellenson said. “I didn’t attend the {team meeting], but I was told about it. Sure, I want the job. Coach Graves wants me to have it.”

    Florida Athletics disagreed, giving Dickey the position and upsetting both universities involved.

    The 2020 Vols received the gift of a bowl game this year, and Rocky Top Insider wishes all happy holidays and a Merry Christmas prior to kickoff at 4 p.m. EST on Dec. 31 in Memphis. The game will be televised on ESPN.

    Lexie Little is a journalist from Kingsport, Tennessee, who holds a Bachelor of Communication degree from the University of Tennessee with majors in both Journalism & Electronic Media and French & Francophone Studies. She's a contributor to RTI and writes the weekly column "The Week in UT Sports History." Lexie formerly worked as a feature writer for VIPSEEN Magazine and continues to freelance for various publications as she earns her master's degree from the University of Georgia Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.