Some time during the 1989 season, the 11-1 season that won the Vols an equal share of a three-way tie for the SEC title, the Vol pass defense sprung a leak. Badly.
The Vols gave up 47 points to Alabama and 39 to LSU, both on the road. It says something that the Vols managed a split, losing to Alabama and defeating LSU. For the two weeks of play, the Vols had given up 63 completions in 95 attempts for 817 yards and seven touchdowns.
Gary Hollingsworth led the way as Alabama had 97 offensive plays and 379 yards passing, 11th best mark against the Vols since the dawn of time, or at least, the dawn of recorded game stats. The Vols lost 47-30.
The next week, LSU’s Tommy Hodson threw for 438 yards and four touchdowns the next week, third highest mark on Vol charts, behind Whit Taylor (464 in 1981) of Bedford County, Tenn., and Kentucky’s Tim Couch (476 in 1997). The Vols, incidentally, won each game of the three.
Chuck Webb ran for 132 yards and Carl Pickens had a 93-yard kickoff return for a touchdown as the Vols managed to stay just a step ahead of the Bengals. It took a while, however, given that LSU jumped out to an early 14-0 lead.
Pickens’ TD run came just before halftime in the day game at Tiger Stadium, a game moved for television, a phrase almost as corrosive to football as, “The play is under further review.” It brought back memories of Willie’s Gault’s kickoff return on the same field in 1982.
LSU had a couple of ill-timed drops on the previous series, yielding only a field goal, and, in this game, field goals were not the answer.
Andy Kelly led the charge against LSU, making his first start after an impressive day at Alabama. The final was 45-39, but the game was in the balance into the final minutes.
A wonderfully talented athlete who made the game look easy, Pickens helped shore up the Vols secondary in the ensuing weeks to help the Vols to the title. Each contender lost on another’s home field (Auburn at Tennessee, Tennessee at Alabama, albeit at Birmingham, and Alabama at Auburn) and won everywhere else.
Alabama looked to have the edge, but lost in the season finale at Auburn, a loss that didn’t sit well with the Alabama faithful, so distressing to the folks in Tuscaloosa that the Tide had another coach in 1990, Bryant disciple Gene Stallings, SEC title or not in 1989.
Tennessee finished 11-1 and knocked off Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl by 31-27, and won the SEC crown again in 1990, despite what some revisionist historians in Gainesville, Fla., might have you believe.
Saturday, Oct. 25, 2014