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Signature wins have been few and far between for Tennessee in the post-Phil Fulmer era. On this day five years ago however, the Volunteers pulled out one for the ages.
Georgia scored in the final seconds to hand Tennessee what appeared to be a gut-wrenching loss. Instead, the Volunteers connected on a Hail Mary on the last play to pull out a 34-31 victory.
Setting the Stage
Tennessee was riding high as it entered Sanford Stadium on Oct. 1, 2016. Ranked No. 11, the Volunteers were 4-0 for the first time since 2003 and looking for their first 5-0 start since 1998. Tennessee had just defeated rival Florida for the first time in 12 tries.
Georgia was 3-1 and ranked No. 25 coming in. The Bulldogs opened the season with wins over North Carolina, Nicholls and Missouri by a combined 12 points. They were coming off a 45-14 loss at Ole Miss. Georgia had won five straight over Tennessee before falling in Knoxville the year prior, 38-31.
Heartbreak Turns Into Triumph
Tennessee trailed 24-14 entering the fourth quarter, but with less than three minutes to play in the game, that had changed. The Volunteers opened the final quarter with a 16-yard touchdown pass from Joshua Dobbs to Alvin Kamara to cut the lead to 24-21.
With less than three minutes remaining, the Tennessee defense came up big. Georgia was backed up to its own 5-yard-line when Derek Barnett sacked quarterback Jacob Eason. The ball popped loose and Corey Vereen fell on it in the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown.
On the second play of the ensuing drive, Tennessee’s Malik Foreman picked off Eason for what looked like the game-sealing interception. The Bulldogs however, were able to utilize their timeouts and get the ball back.
With a minute to play, it took Georgia just four plays to go 81 yards for the touchdown. After three straight completions for first downs, Eason found Riley Ridley, who had gotten behind a pair of Tennessee defenders, for the 47-yard touchdown.
10 seconds remained and Georgia led 31-28. Victory appeared to be a certainty for the Bulldogs.
Tennessee however, had life.
Evan Berry returned the ensuing kickoff past midfield. Coupled with an offsides penalty, the Volunteers had one play from the Georgia 43-yard-line. Rather than try a 60-yard field goal, head coach Butch Jones sent out his offense.
On the game’s final play, Dobbs launched a dart from midfield. Surrounded by Georgia defenders, Jauan Jennings made a leaping catch in the end zone.
No time was left. Somehow, some way, Tennessee had won, 34-31.
Prior to the fourth quarter, Tennessee had never led. In fact, it didn’t get on the scoreboard until the final seconds of the first half.
A touchdown run by Sony Michel and a fumble recovery in the end zone by Eason bookended a short field goal as Georgia raced to a 17-0 lead. Dobbs’ 4-yard touchdown run cut the deficit to 10 with 12 seconds left in the first half.
Tennessee drew to within three when Dobbs found Jalen Hurd on a 19-yard scoring strike. Georgia answered when Eason and tight end Isaac Nauta hooked up for a 50-yard touchdown with less than five minutes to play in the third quarter.
Dobbs accounted for four total touchdowns in the win. Michel led all rushers with 91 yards in the loss.
The victory vaulted Tennessee into the top 10, but the Volunteers proceeded to lose their next three games and four of the next seven. Tennessee closed the year with a Music City Bowl win over Nebraska to finish ranked.
For Georgia, it was the second straight loss during a stretch where it lost four of five games. After a 4-4 start, the Bulldogs won four of their final five games to finish the year with a record of 8-5 in their first season under head coach Kirby Smart.
Three of Georgia’s five losses that season came by three points or less. What was likely the most memorable of those came on this day five years ago.