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This Week in UT Sports History – Dec. 28th-Jan. 3rd

(Photo courtesy of Tennessee Athletics)

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

The historic 2020 football season took another turn for the Tennessee Volunteers when positive COVID-19 tests within the program forced them to back out of the upcoming AutoZone Liberty Bowl against West Virginia in Memphis. Earning a rather unexpected bid to the game after finishing the season 3-7, the Vols seemed poised to continue a Tennessee tradition of postseason play. The news broke as the team conducted coronavirus tests according to SEC protocol on Sunday. Positive tests revealed the next day, including those of head coach Jeremy Pruitt and multiple players, forced the Vols to decline a trip across the state for the matchup.

The Vols began 2020 with a win against Indiana in the Gator Bowl, barely squeaking out a fourth-quarter comeback to secure the 23-22 victory. Tennessee holds a top-10 spot on the all-time list for bowl appearances with 53.

Though the Vols must skip the postseason heading into 2021, Rocky Top Insider takes a look back at moments in past bowl games this week in UT sports history:

Dec. 31, 1982

The game wasn’t peachy keen for the Big Orange. After surmounting a 21-7 deficit to come within a touchdown of the lead, Tennessee failed to hang on against Iowa in the 1982 Peach Bowl. The Hawkeyes took a stand in the fourth quarter to hold off the Vols, winning 28-22.

Iowa got hot early off the quick arm of quarterback Chuck Long. Long threw three touchdown passes in the first half to take the early lead. Tennessee, however, rallied after the half with two touchdowns and a field goal.

The Vols had a chance for the tying touchdown late in the fourth. Quarterback Alan Cockrell, who completed 22 of 41 for 221 yards in the game, took his team to within the Iowa 10-yard line. On third down, the Hawkeyes deflected his pass before a fourth down stop to end the game and claim the Peach Bowl title.

Tennessee most recently faced Iowa in the 2015 Taxslayer Bowl. Thanks to a commanding performance by the Vol offense on the ground (rushes accounting for 283 of 461 yards), Tennessee picked up a large victory, 45-28.

Twenty years to the day after the 1982 loss, the Vols again found themselves in the Peach Bowl. Again, it ended with a loss, this time 30-3 against Maryland. The Terrapins sacked quarterback Casey Clausen six times, and the Vols committed eight penalties for 68 yards.

Dec. 31, 2009

A bowl with Peach and oranges just does not settle well for Vols on Dec. 31. After losing two prior Peach Bowls on that date, Tennessee yet again let an early lead get the best of them to fall in the 2009 Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl. The Virginia Tech Hokies jumped out to an early 14-0 lead before Montario Hardesty and Denarius Moore tied up the game. A field goal late in the second quarter gave Virginia Tech a respectable 17-14 lead heading into halftime. However, the Vols failed to show up for the second half. Adding 20 more points, Tech shut out Tennessee in the third and fourth quarters to win the bowl game, 37-14.

The game marked the only postseason appearance for head coach Lane Kiffin while on Rocky Top, primarily because he only stayed for one season. The loss, of course, stood as a precursor to Kiffin’s infamous exit from Tennessee to take the head job at the University of Southern California. Speculation about NCAA rules violations on the recruiting trail and coaching turmoil –  including the departures of wide receivers coach Frank Wilson and running backs coach Eddie Gran prior to the bowl game – rattled the program.

Though Kiffin argued outside noise would not influence team play, the score indicated otherwise. The Vols dropped a significant decision to a geographic rival, setting up a wild offseason not soon to be forgotten.

Jan. 1, 1996

The 2020 season led to plenty of lamentations, particularly when the four College Football Playoff teams received their bids earlier this month. Ohio State (6-0) picked up the No. 3 spot despite only playing six games. The Buckeyes’ perfect record includes wins against the likes of Rutgers (3-6), Nebraska (3-5) and Penn State (4-5), largely untested and making for plenty of conversation about postseason structure. However, all chatter focused on the Vols in 1996 when they faced Ohio State in the Florida Citrus Bowl.

The Buckeyes entered the game with a chip on their shoulders and Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George at running back. They stood tied with Tennessee for No. 4 in the AP poll, both teams having lost one game, each to primary rivals. Ohio State lost to Michigan to give Northwestern the conference title while Tennessee faced a stunning loss to Florida earlier in the season. Both teams wanted a win to kick off the new year and prove their national prowess.

Tennessee won, 20-14. Kicker Jeff Hall scored two late field goals in the fourth to lead the Vols to victory. The men in orange and white would open newspapers to find themselves at No. 3 in the final polls after the win.

One year later, the Volunteers faced yet another Big Ten team in the Citrus Bowl. Tied at 21 in the second quarter, Tennessee put on a show in the second half to defeat Northwestern, 48-28, against the conference co-champion repeating its title. Junior quarterback Peyton Manning passed for 408 yards in the game.

The 1996 Citrus Bowl marks the only time Ohio State and Tennessee have faced each other on the gridiron. The Vols hold the advantage on program bowl appearances with 53 (fourth in the nation) to Ohio State’s 50 (ninth in the nation). Ohio State will face Clemson this Friday in the Sugar Bowl at 8 p.m. on ESPN. The game comes just days after Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney ranked Ohio State No. 11 in his Amway Coaches Poll.

Though the Vol football team won’t play this week, the Lady Vols basketball team (5-1) is back on the court tonight against Lipscomb at 7 p.m. The game will be televised on SEC Network. Rick Barnes and the No. 8 men’s team will face former Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin and the No. 14 Missouri Tigers on Wednesday at 9 p.m., also on SEC Network. Both teams in the latter game hold a 6-0 record.

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