Jump in the “Way Back Machine” and venture 20 years into the past, October 9, 1999, sixth-ranked Tennessee defeated No. 10 Georgia 37-20 at Neyland Stadium. The win was the ninth straight for the Volunteers over the Bulldogs, marking the longest losing streak Georgia has ever suffered to any foe and extending Tennessee’s lead in the all-time series to 17-10-2. Six of those nine successive Volunteer victories came by at least 12 points.
When Vince Dooley retired as Georgia’s head coach following the 1988 season, the Bulldogs led the all-time series 10-8-2, including four consecutive wins from 1973-1988. That’s right, that was a long gap. Andy Johnson’s famous play and Larry Munson’s great call highlighted a 35-31 upset win in Knoxville in 1973. The Mighty Munson then introduced the college football world to the Goal Line Stalker Herschel Walker, who’s two touchdown debut and Pat McShea’s fumble recovery saved the night at Neyland 16-15 to start the magical run to the 1980 national championship. The Bulldogs opened the following 1981 season with a 44-0 thrashing of the Vols en route to a second straight Southeastern Conference crown. Behind the running of Rodney Hampton and Tim Worley, Georgia topped Tennessee in a rainy fourth quarter between the hedges to open the 1988 season.
In those days, Georgia and Tennessee were far from permanent opponents. They would rotate on and off the schedule for home and home sets every few years. In fact, when the officials smiled on Tennessee in a 17-17 tie to open the 1968 season, it marked the first meeting between the two since 1937! That’s a 31-year gap between meetings of two teams, not only in the same conference but in bordering states that represent a four-hour drive or a 26-minute flight across the Smoky Mountains.
That would all change with the addition of Arkansas and South Carolina to the SEC in 1992 when the league split into divisions and the Bulldogs and Volunteers would become permanent opponents.
The Volunteers began their run against the Bulldogs in 1989, then in 1992, a superior Georgia team turned the football over six times and lost a heartbreaker between the hedges 34-31. Things then swung heavily in the Vols favors. They would rout Georgia the next two seasons. While Georgia was in the midst of a down cycle, winning six or five games in four consecutive seasons, Tennessee was on the rise.
When Jim Donnan arrived as the Bulldogs coach in 1996, the Volunteers were a full-on national power, right there with Florida, Florida State and Nebraska as the elite programs of college football. With Peyton Manning at quarterback, Tennessee went 11-1 in 1995, 10-2 in 1996 and won the SEC title, going 11-2 in 1997. With Tee Martin under center, Tennessee finally took down Florida and then a week after outstanding running back Jamal Lewis was injured, the Vols dropped Georgia 22-3. Tennessee would go on to win the national championship.
The Bulldogs would turn things around with an outstanding 10-2 season in 1997, but couldn’t get over the hump against Tennessee. Donnan astutely said in those days that Georgia was one of the elite teams in the SEC, but not in the SEC East.
The streak came to an end with the Bulldogs 21-10 win over the Vols between the hedges in 2000. For the first time ever, the goalposts came down, as Georgia fans stormed Sanford Stadium.
It was a long time coming.
It also turned the tables on the series.
In 2001, in Mark Richt’s first season at the Georgia helm, the “hobnail boot” pass from David Greene to Verron Haynes – following a couple of great grabs by Damien Gary – delivered a stunning 26-24 come-from-behind victory on rocky top. The next year, Georgia would hold off Tennessee 18-13 and go on to the SEC championship. Sean Jones Neyland silencing 92-yard fumble return for a touchdown on the final play of the first half was the death blow of a 41-14 Georgia win in 2003.
That made four straight. Then things would shift back Tennessee’s way in 2004, as the Volunteers upset undefeated, heavily favored Georgia a week after the Bulldogs had soundly defeated defending national champion LSU 45-16. That loss to the Vols kept Georgia out of the SEC Championship Game and was one of six gut-wrenching SEC setbacks by a touchdown or less – three to Florida, one each to LSU, Auburn and this one to the Vols – between 2002 and 2005 that kept the Bulldogs from playing for a national championship.
Tennessee would win four of the next six. But a new decade brought new success for Georgia against this new rival. Since 2010, the Bulldogs have beaten Tennessee seven of nine times. The Vol wins were a rally back from a 24-3 first-half deficit in 2015, and the Hail Mary in Athens in 2016, Kirby Smart’s first season at the Georgia helm.
Now Georgia is amongst the nation’s elite, while Tennessee is trying to find its way with second-year head coach Jeremy Pruitt, who, like many on his staff is a former Georgia assistant.
The Bulldogs resounding 41-0 victory in Knoxville in 2017 was a catapult to the SEC title, and a 38-12 win last year in Athens started and finished strong.
Now, two decades after losing for a ninth straight time, this Georgia team has the golden opportunity to improve to 5-0, make it three in a row over Tennessee and take the all-time series lead.
What a distant thought that was 20 years ago.