An oral history of LSU's vanquishing of Tennessee in the 2001 SEC Championship Game
AUG 27, 2014 9:58a ET
Dec. 8, 2001, was supposed to be a night to remember for Tennessee fans, and it was … but for all the wrong reasons.
From 1989-2001, the Vols compiled a 129-29-2 record, with 3 SEC titles and one National Championship. But when LSU upset the Vols in the 2001 SEC Championship Game in Atlanta, it marked what some have called, fair or not, the beginning of the end of a spectacular run for Tennessee.
It also marked the start of something special for the Tigers program, which prior to 2001 had only one 10-win season since 1987.
What follows are the memories of that game from Tennessee and LSU players, coaches, fans, and the media that covered the Vols and Tigers back in 2001.
So sit back, grab a beverage of choice, and find out what happens when a people stop being polite, and a previously unknown quarterback’s name becomes an expletive in the state of Tennessee.
Part I: How Tennessee Got There
In 2001 Tennessee finished the regular season at 10-1. The blemish being the “Hobnail Boot” loss to Georgia. In a game played on Dec. 1, the fourth-ranked Vols upset second-ranked Florida, 34-32, in Gainesville. That win earned Tennessee the SEC Eastern Division title, and a spot in the SEC Championship Game. If the Vols won the following week in Atlanta, they would play top ranked Miami for the BCS National Championship at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.
Mike Griffith (Knoxville News-Sentinel sportswriter. Today, works with MLive Media Group.)
Tennessee was very confident throughout the week as the Vols had a very successful season. Quarterback Casey Clausen was laughing about “The Swamp” saying it was a "100-yard patch of grass,'' and that when he thought about the “Big Time,” he thought Super Bowls, not a college stadium in Florida. Casey said he was most excited about his first trip to play at Florida because he was gonna get interviewed by one of the ESPN female reporters before the game. So, yeah, the team was pretty loose.
Matt Cupp (Freshman at UT and student film guy for UT Football. Today, Project Manager for Architectural and Facilities Branding projects.)
(After preparing cameras) Me and another film guy walked outside around the stadium and took in the gameday atmosphere. Florida fans had roses set up at their tailgates - they were waving them around in celebration of their assumed upcoming trip to the Rose Bowl or just simply walking around with a stemmed rose in their mouth.
Phillip Fulmer (Tennessee head coach. 152-52 record in 17 seasons.)
We felt confident but we were like a 16- or 18-point underdog, which was incredibly stupid. We had a heck of a team and a very good record… 9/11 happened and the game was moved to the end of season. We were playing for the Eastern Division in that one game in The Swamp. We were healthy and playing well, and felt good going into the game. The score was closer than how the game went. They made a comeback on us and we had to make a play at the end. But really, we physically dominated the game.
Travis Stephens (Tennessee running back. Played three seasons in National Football League.)
Against Florida, Stephens ran for 226 yards and two touchdowns in one of the top offensive performances in Vols history.
I wanted to make sure I was prepared to give it 110 percent Whatever it may be… role player, main guy, whatever. I just wanted to make sure it was something I was prepared for so that I could be accountable for team and make sure I was ready. It happened to be a good game for me.
Travis Haney (Junior at UT and Sports Editor of the campus newspaper, The Daily Beacon. Today, National College Football writer for ESPN.com.)
What I remember most, as I'm sure others will too, is how an above-average, undersized running back turned into a hulk for three hours. Travis Stephens was like the dice dance in Knocked-Up; it was UT's only move. Florida knew it, but couldn't stop it. To this day, Steve Spurrier believes it was one of his best teams and a legitimate threat to win the national title. It kills him they didn't win that game. As it turned out, it was also his last game in The Swamp.
Rashad Moore (Tennessee defensive tackle. Played five seasons in National Football League.)
I can’t say that we would have won if we played in the third week of 2001. We knew what was at stake. The game wouldn’t have been as important if it had been played in September. That Florida game would have been our first SEC challenge. Instead, it ended up being our last game. It was very important. People weren’t uptight at all. Normally during Florida week people were always uptight. Make one mistake and you get pulled out. We knew what was at stake … the sky was the limit. Win and you’d play for the SEC title. We hit the field with that in mind. It was a dogfight. I felt like we dominated the game.
Leland Brewer (8th grader at Powell Middle School. Today, works in retail in Powell, TN.)
Florida quarterback Rex Grossman and the rest of the Gators offense was unstoppable but I felt like if they hit Grossman, the Vols could win the game. Turns out I was right. I've always considered the Vols win in Gainesville that day to be the second best win ever in the program, behind the 1998 national championship.
Adam Snyder (Sophomore at Knoxville West High School. Today, baseball coach and teacher at Knoxville Central High School.)
After the game I jumped in the car with my Dad and one of his friends and we went to Kroger to buy cigars while listening to Basilio. It was a great night.
Tony Basilio (Sports talk radio host, Team Sports Radio 97.5 Knoxville. Today, Host/Owner – The Tony Basilio Show.)
First of all I had a bout with pneumonia and I remember vividly sleeping on the floor in some loft of some hotel that the station worked “something” out with. Was really wonderful memories of taking codeine cough syrup to get through the night. We arrived on Thursday evening in Gainesville and didn't leave until we got off the roof of the Purple Porpoise (bar) on the Gainesville strip! It was truly surreal. I remember being up there and having people come up and celebrate with me. Of course I couldn't drink anything because I was on the air, plus I had 101 degree fever. But who's counting? I've never seen anything like the scene on the Gainesville strip after that game. I was literally using my remote equipment like a bullhorn and taunting these Florida fans with my equipment before, during, and after the show. I was young, dumb and in need of a good ass whipping back then.
Dave Denning (Graduated from UT in August 2001. Today, lives in New Orleans.)
I watched that game at my apartment with my best friend. I remember thinking before the game we were a much better team than we were in September when the game was initially scheduled. Travis Stephens was an absolute beast in that game, the offensive line opened holes all game for him. I yelled and screamed at the TV. I threw things around the apartment and went nuts when Florida's two-point conversion was no good. Once we recovered the onside kick, I started making plans for the SEC championship.
Will Overstreet (Tennessee defensive end. Played two seasons in National Football League. Today, CEO of Voices Heard Media.)
Once you get into SEC title game you accomplished something few people get to do as a college athlete. You realize how special that is and how small the margin of error is. So yes, we accomplished our first goal. We knew if won the SEC we would play in the national championship game.
Part II: How LSU Got There
2001 was Nick Saban’s second year as head coach of the LSU Tigers. They finished the regular season with an 8-3 record, 5-3 in SEC play. In a game delayed after 9/11 and played on Dec. 1, 22nd ranked LSU beat 25th ranked Auburn, 27-14, in Baton Rouge. That win earned LSU the SEC Western Division title, and a spot in the SEC Championship Game.
Matt Mauck (LSU freshman backup quarterback. Today, dentist in Aurora, CO.)
Everyone was hopeful going into the 2001 season, but LSU was in a bad state, after going through the Curly Hallman/Gerry DiNardo years … So we were not living up to our potential whatsoever. I think when Nick Saban came in, people were excited about what could be, but people were very skeptical. Especially that first year (2000) we lost to UAB at home. So there were some things that people were worried about. Going into that 2001 season we were in the Top 20 but not expecting to go to a BCS game or something like that.
Rodney Reed (LSU sophomore offensive lineman. Today, VP of Internal Audit at National Oilwell Varco.)
I do recall we finished the 2000 season with a bowl win against Georgia Tech, winning five out of our last six games. We had a good number of starters back and some consistency and familiarity with the system. We thought we could complete well that year. Also, we got a great group of freshman recruits that year, several of whom contributed during the 2001 season.
Michael Cauble (Sports Photographer/Reporter at WBRZ-TV in Baton Rouge. Today, Sports Director at WBRZ-TV.)
The Tigers were just putting the pieces together. Everyone knew they had something, because they were able to turn it around relatively quickly in the year prior. They also knew they had something in quarterback Rohan Davey and wide receiver Josh Reed. Those two could pitch and catch and were getting better and better as the season wore on.
Matt Moscona (Sophomore at LSU. Today, sports talk radio host on 104.5 ESPN Baton Rouge.)
There was awful weather the second week against Utah State, but as the game was getting underway, the skies cleared and the brightest rainbow I have ever seen appeared over the south end zone of Tiger Stadium. I’m sure I was about a case of beer deep, but I distinctly remember thinking that was some divine sign that LSU was going to win the national championship. I still have a picture of the rainbow.
Ben Caire (Sophomore at LSU. Today, working on Doctorate in Chemical Engineering in Colorado.)
We were all pretty jacked up for that (Auburn) game. (WR) Michael Clayton recovered the opening kick that was an onsides kick and then leveled a dude on the ensuing kickoff after LSU scored. He was a beast on special teams all year. LSU outplayed Auburn the whole game and then we rushed the field. I think the statute of limitations has expired on being punished for field rushing so I'm comfortable admitting that I did indeed rush the field.
Mauck: By our last three games we felt we were one of the Top 5 teams in the country by the way we were playing. Everything started to click, Rohan was playing really well, Josh Reed was coming on … our defense was coming on… Tennessee caught us at the peak or our season.
Part III: “They were handing out those darn roses. I wasn’t excited about that…”
Following Tennessee’s win over Florida, optimism was high on the UT campus and across the city of Knoxville as well…
Jason Witten (Tennessee tight end. Today in his 12th season playing for the Dallas Cowboys.)
That was my first experience seeing Tennessee at that level of excitement. I had heard stories about 1998. When we got back to Knoxville there were cars lined up on the side of the road from the airport all the way to campus. There were hundreds of fans at the airport when we landed.
Moore: I had never seen a welcome back like we had in Knoxville. All along Alcoa Highway people were standing and cheering. The city was behind us 110 percent You can’t help but do everything you can to win when the city is behind you. It really was a memorable moment.
Justin Hoskins (Freshman at UT. Today, member of rock band “The Dirty Guv'nahs.”)
Even in the pre-social media world, word had spread fast around campus that the team was heading to Tom Black Track upon their arrival to Knoxville. My roommate Josh and I headed down from Presidential Courtyard to get in on the action.
Fulmer: When we landed we got a call from our security people saying there were six or eight thousand people at the track, waiting for the team to come back. That was way out of the norm. Our fans met us at the track and that was incredible … They were handing out those darn roses. I wasn’t excited about that because we hadn’t gotten to the Rose Bowl. It was three or four in the morning and we were still celebrating after that game. We went by and enjoyed it. It was one of those memorable moments in our career for team and coaches.
Hoskins: We walked into a crazy scene … My main memory about that Tom Black Track celebration involved the roses. Most players had them, and Clausen specifically said something along the lines of, "I can't wait to get back home to California for the Rose Bowl." Then he put the rose in his mouth, tango-style. Everybody went nuts. Josh and I laughed at how everyone was acting like it was a formality we would beat LSU. It didn't seem like a smart thing to be doing, but it also seemed awesome to a bunch of 18 year old kids.
Cal Baxter (Sports Photographer at WATE-TV in Knoxville. Today, Sports Producer/Photographer at WKRN-TV in Nashville.)
I saw video from our station of a celebration at the track and the Vols players were holding roses in their teeth as they hi-fived fans. I think they were already looking past LSU.
Cupp: I remember this all too well. The sight of this was bothersome because just prior I had walked a complete 360 around Ben Hill Griffin Stadium and seen roses all over the Florida fans tailgates ... all inside the stadium ... only to see their Rose Bowl dreams come crashing down with each handoff to Travis Stephens. Why would we do the same thing just hours later?
Overstreet: Fans were throwing them (roses) on the track. It was like walking through a parade or something, like it was confetti except it was roses. It’s like bad karma or a bad omen. We didn’t like that. We had motivation going into Florida because no one thought we would win. We didn’t want LSU to think that we were disrespecting them. We didn’t want them to play any more motivated than they already were. It was definitely something when I saw them I was like, “Don’t do that.”
Stephens: Fans are gonna be like that. If was a fan in that situation I would have thought that “This is a wrap!” I can understand. You are about to play a team you are better than, basically, but that’s why you have upsets.
Part IV: “It was something we kind of threw in on a whim.”
Tennessee and LSU coaches and players were making preparations for the SEC Championship game, a rematch of a contest played in September at Neyland Stadium, which Tennessee won 26-18. At the same time, fans and media from both teams were planning for what was possibly to come.
Haney: As I recall, the overconfidence mostly came from the outside. What I most remember is the advertising in the Beacon and the News-Sentinel. They were filled with Rose Bowl packages, BCS title game vacation packages. I was guilty of it too. I was thinking what it would be like to cover my first national championship game, what a dream come true that would be.
Denning: My friend from college already had plane tickets arranged and we were working on hotel rooms. We figured we would scalp tickets once we got there.
Hoskins: I had some jealousy thinking about people who were at UT a few years earlier when they'd won it all. It had to be amazing to be in school during a national championship year. Now it's my time and I'm running with it. A California vacation over Christmas break with all of my friends to see the Vols play in the National Championship? No brainer.
Josh Roe (WBIR-TV Sports Photographer/Reporter/Anchor in Knoxville. Today, WTVC-TV Evening News Anchor in Chattanooga.)
I assume there were people in Knoxville picking LSU to win that game, but I don't remember talking to any of those people. The fans, the media, and people around the team all seemed confident. We were definitely making plans to go to California. We all wanted to go.
Joe Dubin (WKRN-TV Photographer/Field Producer in Nashville. Today, host of the “Greg Pogue & Big Joe Show” on 94.9 ESPN Radio in Nashville.)
Because so many people had a blast covering the Vols in Tempe (BCS Title Game in January 1999, Fiesta Bowl in January 2000), EVERYONE wanted to go to Pasadena. News people especially, in addition to the sports department. Nothing was set in stone yet but everyone was thinking, "Pasadena and the Rose Bowl on the company dime, hell yes!"
Basilio: We were all so sure Tennessee was going to roll LSU. It was a foregone conclusion … so much so that we had already bought airline tickets to Pasadena through the station. The GM was really happy with me after the LSU game.
Reed: I wouldn’t say that we were disrespected. We were inconsistent during the year so we felt like Tennessee earned the credit they got.
Mauck: It was gonna be Miami and Tennessee. That’s what people were saying the whole time. I think very few people were paying attention to us. Tennessee was one of top two teams in country and we were 8-3. But I think the way we looked at it … we felt we were playing well enough that we could play with anyone in the country.
Fulmer: I thought we practiced great. Our focus was good. I recall commenting to the staff that they seemed to get back to business. It was a very physical game against Florida so we took a day early in the week, same routine but not as much contact first of week because of late night on Saturday.
“I thought we practiced great. Our focus was good. I recall commenting to the staff that they seemed to get back to business.”
Moore: We were focused. We already had a dogfight with LSU that season. We knew what we were getting into. The LSU game was a lot larger than the UF game. But I felt like we exerted a lot of energy versus Florida.
For the rematch, the LSU coaching staff added in a new wrinkle to the Tigers offensive game plan against Tennessee that paid dividends in Atlanta.
Mauck: Being the backup QB is a great job but it is a tough job because you don’t get the reps as you would if you were the starter. As it happens before that Tennessee game we were worried because they had such a good defensive line and Rohan Davey wasn’t the most mobile guy in the world. They actually put a package in that we hadn’t done all year that was a series of QB draws out of an empty backfield and some other plays out of that. We put it in with me in mind a little bit but I think I only got 3 reps of that throughout the week because Rohan did most of it. That was kind of the crucial piece for us to be able to win that game. It was something we kind of threw in on a whim.
Nick Saban (LSU head coach. Has won a combined 4 national championships at LSU and Alabama.)
We actually felt, in a lot of ways, we should have won the first game (against Tennessee). We felt pretty good as a team … I think, most of the time, when our team is confident it can win. It’s a good sign for us.
Quotes from Nick Saban featured in this Oral History are from a book he wrote in 2002 with The Advocate’s Sam King titled: “Tiger Turnaround: LSU’s Return to Football Glory”
Moscona: I lucked into a once-in-a-lifetime trip to this game. The big wigs at my dad’s company took their private plane and somehow my friend and I managed to weasel our way into two seats. It was incredible. We left Baton Rouge early that afternoon and landed at a private airport in Atlanta. A limo was waiting and took our group to the front gate of the Georgia Dome. We had seats in the lower level around the 10 yard line and watched the entire thing unfold. After the game, the limo took us back to the private airport and we flew back to Baton Rouge in time to watch the highlights on SportsCenter. I wish my dad still worked there.
Caire: Not only a road trip with friends; a last minute invite that I took and blew off studying for a final. I think a friend called me on Wednesday or Thursday that week and asked if I could make the trip. I remember debating going because I had a Physics final on Monday. I did the math on my grades and realized I needed a near perfect score on the final for an A, but only needed a 60 or so to get a B. I got a B in Physics that semester. As for the trip itself, I remember a clever Auburn fan hung a sign on an overpass that every LSU fan drove under along whatever interstate runs through Auburn. It read "GeAUx Vols" and the "AU" was the Auburn logo. Simple, but we got the message.
Part V: “Matt Bleeping Mauck.”
As fans filed into the Georgia Dome, it was clear that there would be a lot more Orange and White in the stands than Purple and Gold…
Mauck: I remember it was basically like a Tennessee home game. We had a small sliver of fans in one corner. I remember looking around asking if there were any LSU fans anywhere.
Keith Alleman (Born and raised in Baton Rouge. Today, owns and operates Livewell Pharmacy in Lenoir City, TN.)
It felt like a domed Neyland Stadium. The only parts of the stadium that were purple and gold were the end zone where the band was and the upper corner of that end zone. That was it. It was EASILY 80/20 Vol fans.
Caire: Did I think LSU would win the SEC Championship Game? Of course I did! I'm a delusional, optimistic LSU fan. Actually, I had full confidence in the offense scoring points because they were just cruising at that point. I figured if they could make it a shootout, then LSU had a chance.
Denning: I actually met a lady outside the Georgia Dome who had dozens of them (orange roses) and was waiting to hand them to the players as they arrived at the game. I convinced her to let me have one and I took it into the game. I sat in the upper deck in the heart of an LSU section proudly rocking my orange and white and carrying my orange rose.
Hoskins: It was a crazy atmosphere. LSU has insane fans, no doubt. But this was Tennessee's crowd, and a whole lot of people had come to celebrate our return to the top. The tickets my dad got us were somehow in the media section. We were surrounded by people covering the game for their various papers and websites. Early in the game, someone from the Knoxville News-Sentinel asked my dad, my brother, and me if we would stick around right after the game so they could get some quotes from us. Seemed like a great idea at the time to agree to this.
Dubin: That night was the WKRN Christmas party in Nashville. Someone had brought two huge TV's into the ballroom and set them up in the corner. There was a DJ and a festive atmosphere, yet no one cared about it because the game was on. And it was a foregone conclusion that the Vols would run over LSU and people were talking about what to do while in California covering the national championship game and how much fun was going to be had out there.
Cupp: I was down with the team in the locker room and in pre-game. I was preparing the video equipment as usual, but overheard some conversations between the players. Most of it was regular talk, but a couple lines I have still not forgotten to this day. "Where do we get the championship T-shirts and hats after the game?" and "How big are the rings gonna be for winning the SEC?" I didn't give much thought to it at the time and kept going, but I hear those two questions in my mind every time someone now mentions the 2001 SEC Championship game.
Tennessee appeared to be in control, leading 17-7 late in the opening half. Vols linebacker Keyon Whiteside and tackle Rashad Moore knocked LSU’s starting quarterback Rohan Davey out of the game temporarily in the first quarter, and Vols linebacker Kevin Burnett’s hit ended Davey’s night for good in the second quarter. Starting tailback LaBrandon Toefield was also knocked out of the game in the second quarter.
Sean Sullivan: (fourth grader at Holy Spirit Catholic School in San Antonio. Today, senior at UT and high school sports reporter at WBIR-TV.)
As soon as the Vols ran into the tunnel at the half my dad and I were huddled around the computer booking plane tickets to Pasadena. LSU was on their backup QB. Tennessee's stout defense. NO WAY the Tigers would come back, right?
Denning: Absolutely, no doubt in my mind we were going to win.
Brian Rice (Freshman at UT. Today, writer for UTSports.com.)
Tennessee didn't blow leads. Ever. Until that (2001) Georgia game. We would come out in the second half, score another TD and grind down the clock. Rohan Davey goes down and the game is obviously in the bag. At that point, I'm contemplating how to best ask my grandparents for my Christmas money early to fund my upcoming trip to the Rose Bowl. I'm going. It's happening. I'm going to convince this blonde that went to the SEC game with us to go to California with us. Life is going to be perfect for me forever.
Hoskins: We were already heavily favored, so losing those starters would surely seal it for us. I started to think about what witty lines I could give in my post-game interview with the News-Sentinel, or what inside joke I could say that would make my friends laugh. I had some pretty good ones.
Caire: I remember thinking that we were totally screwed when Davey got hurt. The Toefield injury was bad too, but Domanick Davis had been splitting carries all season and LSU has never had a problem finding a quality RB in my lifetime. But Davey was special and the offense was tailored to his talents.
An unknown backup QB named Matt Mauck, who played four years of minor league baseball before coming to LSU, replaced Davey twice on this night, and with his entry the game completely changed. He ran for 43 yards, most of them on draw plays the Tigers had only included in their offensive package that week. He completed just five passes, but still led the Tigers on five scoring drives in the second half. Mauck also rushed for two touchdowns on the evening, including the go-ahead score early in the fourth quarter. A fumble by Stephens in the third quarter and another by Tennessee receiver Donte Stallworth in the fourth led to 11 LSU points. Backup running back Domanick Davis rushed for 78 yards, including the score that put the game away on 4th and goal from the Vols 1 yard line with 2:26 remaining. LSU upset Tennessee 31-20, ending the Vols chance to win their second national championship in 4 seasons. It was LSU’s first conference title in 13 years.
Griffith: There were many opportunities early on that UT wasn't taking advantage of, and you had to think it might come back to bite them. The Donte Stallworth fumble in the second half was big… safety Julian Battle was a split-second late turning around on what would have been an interception...
Synder: Matt Bleeping Mauck. That name still haunts my dreams. We had one of the best defenses in the nation that year, but we had no answer for that guy. They ran the same damn play over and over and over and we couldn’t stop it. I’m pretty sure by midway through the 4th quarter I was in tears. I couldn’t believe what had happened. From thinking we were going to the BCS Title Game to not even being SEC Champs, it was tough.
Roe: Tennessee … never seemed to figure out Mauck. I'm sure Tennessee fans were asking, “Who is this guy and why can't Tennessee stop him?” At the time Mauck was a redshirt freshman and hadn't played much up to that point. (Mauck played one half of football the entire 2001 season leading up to the SEC Championship Game.)
Moscona: Tennessee didn’t know anything about Matt Mauck. Hell, LSU fans didn’t know anything about Mauck. All I knew was that he was my buddy’s lab partner and we always laughed at him for saying Mauck was going to be good.
Rice: Matt Mauck was effective against the Tennessee defense in the second half because of unknown misdeeds in a past life that God decided to smite me for.
Denning: It seemed everyone in the stadium knew LSU’s play calls except our defense. It was so frustrating to watch the QB draw dominate us.
Mauck: It’d be third and 2, third and 3… we’d do a QB draw and get four yards. For a defense that is heartbreaking against a backup QB and a second string RB.
Reed: When we were consistently running the ball that is very frustrating to the defense. There started to get to be some talking amongst themselves later in the second half and then you knew it was over.
Saban: By God, we played, made plays and played hard… I think the longer the game went, the more confident we got – confident that we were going to win.
Haney: It was the first time I had ever encountered LSU fans. They were going bonkers the entire game. I'd never seen such a ... lubricated crowd. The smell of bourbon emanated from that South end zone. And they had all these cheers and rhythmic movement. It was like the Japanese baseball crowds must have seemed to Tom Selleck in Mr. Baseball. They were nuts. I loved and hated them, all at once. I think they were as surprised as anyone that their team was in the game...
Caire: I couldn't believe that the team I watched throw all day on helpless defenses was now having success with a freaking QB draw out of a shotgun. Total credit here goes to (LSU offensive coordinator) Jimbo Fisher who completely changed course in the middle of the game and got the team to buy into the play calling.
Fulmer: We always talk about the other guy (the opponent’s backup quarterback). By that point in the season you have enough in your package that whatever changes or adjustments you need to make, you are able to make some. So we knew who the backup was and we knew what he would be like if had to play against him. Davey had been the guy. Knocking him out of the game was something we thought was a big opportunity at the time. Not that we were trying to do that, but it was a physical game. We knocked their tailback and quarterback out. Give LSU credit. They were good enough on offense to get it done.
Overstreet: Today more teams are trying to do that with athletic quarterbacks. As a defense, especially if they go five wide, you have to have the players on the field that can cover the wide receivers. So you are bringing in a DB and taking out an LB most times. That’s what we did. We even went to a 3 man front and took out a lineman. Most teams that have a QB that can’t run? He is a dead player. It is 10 vs 11. If he is a mobile QB and he can run, then you are at a disadvantage.
Reed: I do think we controlled the line of scrimmage. That was really against the best front we probably played my entire career at LSU with John Henderson, Albert Haynesworth, Will Overstreet, etc. If you look back at that game we did a lot of things people are doing now with QB runs out of the empty backfield. That was really ahead of its time and is a testament to Jimbo Fisher, our offensive coordinator. We just didn’t get in bad situations. Look at the film, very few long distances.
Moore: We hit Davey and put him out of the game. We injured Toefield. In football, you prepare for individuals. That’s what you do. We didn’t prepare for Mauck and Davis. Davey and Toefield never ran that draw play. We didn’t prepare for that. If we didn’t knock out Davey, we win the game. Their play calling was totally different with Davey.
Stephens: It was more like a momentum swing. They capitalized on our turnovers. I turned it over once, Donte did too … You could see it. They were more energetic, more willing to do what it took to win ...
Fulmer: The problem was turnovers in the ballgame that we had… which usually is at least an equalizer, and can get you beat. I think we had a third and short and we turned the ball over, and we turned it over at the end of the game when we had a chance to win the game.
Mauck: After the game I remember seeing how dejected the Tennessee fans were.They were in disbelief. It seemed a forgone conclusion that they’d win… there’s a backup QB and second string RB and we still can’t win. It was a shock for most Tennessee fans.
Hoskins: My thoughts went from, "This shouldn't be that close of a game" to "We're running out of time" in a hurry. No way they go out like this, with so much at stake. They just CAN’T. As the clock was winding down, it was becoming apparent that this was over. All I wanted to do was leave, but I had to do that stupid interview. I'm thinking, "This (News-Sentinel) writer is sitting next to me, so I can't just leave, right? Actually, why not? What's he going to do about it? Surely he can just talk to someone else." Next thing I know I've been cornered. Great. I'm stuck. What was I thinking agreeing to this? Just get me out of Atlanta. I gave the quickest, most generic answers I could muster, because what I really wanted to say wasn't suitable for print.
Brewer: I was 14 years old, and I cried myself to sleep that night. The amount of happiness I experienced the week before was quickly erased by ten times the disappointment.
Rice: It was the beginning of a skill that has proven useful in years since: Finding the Georgia Dome MARTA station with my head down.
Alleman: The second half momentum kept building and by the fourth quarter, LSU fans knew we would win and Vol fans knew what was coming. I know it didn't happen but it sure felt like Mauck ran the read option every play and (Tennessee defensive coordinator) Chavis didn't adjust. I believe that was the beginning of the lunacy of Vol fans blaming Chavis for every yard given up by his defense.
Roe: It seemed every Tennessee fan I saw that night had a rose or several, including a couple of former players we talked to. Tennessee fans never saw it coming.
Sullivan: My family and I were all shocked at the end of the game. No words were spoken. You can almost hear all of our hearts breaking as the clocked ticked down at the Georgia Dome.
Moscona: As I recall, there were vendors selling orange roses before the game and seemingly every Tennessee fan I saw had one. There were a lot of those roses on the ground in the concourses and outside the Dome after the game.
Dubin: When it became clear that Tennessee was going to get beat, it was like someone had walked into the ballroom and pulled everyone's heart out. To go from one minute thinking about the Hollywood nightlife to the stark reality that you are not going to go was hilarious. The faces on those who thought they were going to go was like they had seen a ghost and I gotta say, it was one of the funniest things I have ever seen. Once they realized it was over, the party still had a ways to go, most everyone left, highly pissed off.
Basilio: The fallout from the game was interesting because we did (Geoff Brock and me) a call-in show called “5th Quarter” immediately following that game that lasted till 3:30am (“5th Quarter” returns this season following Tennessee games at www.tonybasilio.com). When we went off the air we still had 3 callers on hold. We had to cut the show off. It was making me crazy. My producer at the time Shawn Nunelly turned to me at the time and asked me what I wanted to do. I said, “Let's get the hell outta here.” We drove back to Knoxville literally on fumes. And here I was, still dragging pneumonia around. I'm not a kid anymore.
Part VI: “The losses hurt more than the wins feel good. That’s what drives you.”
Fulmer: Most guys tell you that you remember the great wins but the gut wrenching things are the tough losses that you have. You can go back and pick the 4-5 losses and think if you did that a little better or something… but that is the nature of the beast. The losses hurt more than the wins feel good. That’s what drives you.
Overstreet: After you lose everyone says that’s why you lost (looking ahead to Rose Bowl). That’s BS. We played LSU that year. They chopped blocked me, I tore my MCL and that caused me to miss a few games. I wasn’t looking past LSU at all. I was looking for revenge. It was just one of those games. If Davey hadn’t gotten hurt? That was probably the worst thing that happened to us.
Stephens: It is my most difficult loss. It still hurts to this day. I still think about it. I know we should have won. I was prepared, but was thinking we weren’t into it like we should have been. We didn’t play to 100 percent like capable of playing. I’m satisfied if we did everything we could but lost… but when you know you are better than a team and let it slip away it hurts even more. I hate to think about it.
Moore: It was my toughest loss until Super Bowl XLII, when we (New England Patriots) were undefeated and lost to the New York Giants. This loss is in that same area. Both losses dangle above my head. But that’s part of life. You experience things for a certain reason. What you take from it… that’s on you. I’m glad I experienced it. Those are building blocks as you get older.
Haney: As much as I wanted to cover a national championship game, these guys lost a chance to play in one. I do remember talking with Clausen. He of course had just missed a chance to play at home for a national title. He tried his best to spew his handful of clichés, but you could tell he was really distraught.
Mauck: When I was with the Tennessee Titans they asked why everyone knows me. I said it wasn’t a good thing.
Part VII: The Aftermath
Tennessee regrouped to beat Michigan 45-17 in the Citrus Bowl. The Vols finished the season ranked fourth in the country, but haven’t been as close to the national championship game since that night in Atlanta. The Vols did advance to the SEC Championship Game two more times in the Fulmer era, and went 52-26 from 2002-2007. Still, the perception remains for many that the 2001 SEC Championship game was the start of Tennessee’s tumble.
Fulmer: I don’t think that is fair. The Eastern Division was getting deeper. Georgia was getting better ... before that it was just Tennessee and Florida. South Carolina had gotten better at that time. We played in the SEC Championship Game twice in 2004 and 2007, and that’s not by accident. Back when there was no playoff… I’ll say it like this. Winning the Eastern Division was like winning the old SEC championship. And playing in the SEC championship was like playing in the semifinals for the national championship. If you get into the SEC championship you’ve done a good job of playing and coaching. In 2007 we were one play away from winning the SEC championship against (an LSU) team that won the national championship.
Overstreet: That’s the problem for any coach. After you win a national championship or have success like Fulmer did, you are never going to keep that standard up. After climbing that mountain, fans put that as the only thing that was successful. Whereas getting to the SEC Championship Game when Peyton Manning was here was huge, all of a sudden that wasn’t good enough.
Witten: I had never been on a team that worked that hard. The game that goes unnoticed is playing Michigan in the Citrus Bowl. Our team had every reason to lay down, after losing our chance to play for the national championship. And we really took it to Michigan. But it was bittersweet because of the missed opportunity. Still, that was a good group of guys.
Dubin: I do remember after the Vols lost that game against LSU, the bowl lineups came out and they were going to face Michigan in the Citrus Bowl. I loaded up on Michigan to win that game because there was no way UT gave a crap about playing in that bowl, when they were so close to getting to Pasadena. Because I lost so much money on that game, I haven't bet since then. And won't again.
Basilio: It was interesting the way fans grabbed onto the narrative that the team was over confident due to the excessive celebrating at Tom Black Track after the Florida game. We heard it a good 10 times in the post-game show and excessively over the following weeks in the wake of the loss. Hard to say what impact this had on the game but it didn't help when this became the narrative.
“Our team had every reason to lay down, after losing our chance to play for the national championship. And we really took it to Michigan.”
Baxter: I remember talking to Vols linebacker Kevin Burnett at a Citrus Bowl breakfast after the loss to LSU. He told me, "We pissed in our corn flakes," when referring to the loss to LSU in the SEC title game and missing out on a shot at the national championship. In almost 15 years of doing this, it is the most honest assessment I've ever gotten from a player and I still say it when a team misses a golden opportunity to win a big game.
Moore: We still meet up in Knoxville. We were there back in April for the Orange & White Game. It’s always great seeing those guys. Donte Stallworth is like my brother. We talk all the time. We bring up that game. We didn’t stand up like we could have on defense, but I tell Donte we would have won if he didn’t fumble. I still tease him about that.
Cupp: I do think that was the game where Tennessee started on the decline. However, in my opinion that also was the start of the shift in power from the SEC East to the SEC West. Prior to that game the East (Tennessee & Florida) had won nine of the previous 11 SEC Championships dating back to 1990. Since then the East has only won four of the past 13 SEC Championships. That game certainly helped propel LSU back into a position of power and started the run for Nick Saban.
Haney: It was the Vols' last time on that huge stage. They've played in SEC title games since then -- 2004, 2007 -- but they were footnotes to whoever they were playing against. At that time in 2001, because of the Florida win, they were the aggressors. They were the attraction. It's the last time Tennessee was nationally relevant late in a season. Surely the story thereafter would have been different if they'd won that game and at least played for another BCS title. But that's reality.
Phillip Fulmer was fired following the 2008 season, in which the Vols finished 5-7. Since then Tennessee has compiled a 28-34 record under Lane Kiffin (2009), Derek Dooley (2010-2012) and current head coach Butch Jones (2013).
Brewer: The Rohan Davey-Georgia Dome curse was a supposedly a hoax put on Tennessee by the mother of Rohan Davey because they knocked him out of the game. The hoax was supposed to last 10 years. The ironic thing about that curse was after the ten years had gone by, the Vols won the next game at the Georgia Dome versus N.C. State in 2012 after not winning in that building since the hoax was supposedly put on. Whether you believe that story or not, that's up to you.
Hoskins: I think it's pretty obvious that then-LSU assistant Derek Dooley put some sort of slow curse on the Vols that day that culminated in his Tennessee head coaching tenure. Wish (Tennessee receiver) Kelley “The Future” Washington would have warned us about that one.
Roe: At the time Tennessee was just a few years removed from the Peyton Manning era and the National Championship team in 1998. It was a fun time to be around the program. 2001 was 13 years ago. Feels longer than that.
As for LSU, a now healthy Rohan Davey threw for 444 yards as the Tigers would beat Illinois 47-34 in the Sugar Bowl. LSU would finish the 2001 season ranked seventh in the country.Two years later they would win the BCS National Championship under Nick Saban (with Matt Mauck at quarterback), and then win it again in 2007 with another head coach, Les Miles. The Tigers have been a perennial SEC and National Title contender for more than a decade.
Caire: After Saban was hired and you could see how he wanted to build the program. I remember thinking that he was going to have LSU competing for SEC titles in three years and National Titles in five. He won an SEC Title in his second year and a National Title in his fourth. So, slightly ahead of what I thought he could do. The best thing Saban did was convince all the in-state talent to attend LSU. A lot of freshman played in 2001 and those guys formed the core of the 2003 team. So I could tell that the talent level was improving and it was a matter of coaching them up and getting lucky.
Cauble: Nick (Saban) referred to the program as a sleeping giant. It started a belief that hard work would pay off, and accountability and doing things the right way for 60 minutes paid off. It’s a lot of what you saw happen at Alabama with Nick’s second stint in the SEC. Saban has always been Saban. It just takes time for his “mantra’s” to get through to their intended targets, whether that be players, fans or media.
Moscona: Being a student at LSU and attending every football game—home and away—I was able to see some of the greatest moments in program history. It is also comical to me to think back at how rabid I was and how docile I am now. My job requires me to sit in a press box, not cheer and not wear LSU colors at games and be honest about when they are good and when they stink. Anyone who knew the “College Me” wouldn’t believe it. The key to LSU building a national championship contender was Saban getting the 2001 class with guys like Clayton and Marcus Spears to stay home and play for LSU. That class was the key to the 2003 title. The 2001 SEC title was premature, but welcomed success.
Mauck: I’m most proud that my teammates and I put LSU football where we thought it should have been. There’s too much high school talent in Louisiana (for LSU) to not be good. We broke thru a bit that season and got it pointed in right direction and that’s something I’m extremely proud of.
Reed: It proved we were one of the elite. Also, it allowed us to recruit better and given that we had so many young players playing for us, it allowed us to set the foundation for the next several years.
Saban: Play for the championship and win it by beating the team that would have gone and played in the Rose Bowl for the national championship is a really significant accomplishment. I was happy for our fans, but especially happy for the kids. I can’t remember any better feeling I’ve ever had than after the SEC Championship Game. It was just a tremendous feeling to see this team be able to accomplish that and feel good about themselves.
“ I’m most proud that my teammates and I put LSU football where we thought it should have been”
There was an extraordinary amount of talent on display at the 2001 SEC Championship Game. 24 Tennessee players and 18 LSU players that were on those rosters would be selected in the NFL Draft in the years to come. In addition, Tennessee assistant coach Doug Marrone and LSU assistant coaches Jimbo Fisher, Will Muschamp, Derek Dooley and Michael Haywood would land head coaching jobs at the Division I level in the years to come.