During his legendary Tennessee career, quarterback Peyton Manning infamously went 0-4 against Steve Spurrier and Florida. His final contest against SEC competition, however, ended with the future Hall of Fame selection and NFL MVP hoisting a trophy.
On this day 25 years ago, Manning won his only SEC title. He passed for 373 yards and three touchdowns to rally the Volunteers past Auburn, 30-29.
Setting the Stage
Tennessee was 10-1, ranked No. 3 in the country and riding an 8-game winning streak as it arrived at the Georgia Dome for the sixth SEC Championship on Dec. 6, 1997. The Volunteers were playing in the SEC Championship for the first time.
Auburn was 9-2, ranked No. 11 and coming off big wins over Georgia and Alabama. Like Tennessee, the Tigers were playing in the SEC Championship for the first time in their fifth season under head coach Terry Bowden.
Manning Rallies the Volunteers
Tennessee got the scoring started in the contest with a Jamal Lewis touchdown, but Auburn responded with the next 20 points. The Tigers led 20-10 at halftime and 27-17 by the latter parts of the third quarter.
After finding Jermaine Copeland for a score earlier in the third quarter, Manning connected with Peerless Price for a 46-yard touchdown with just over a minute remaining in the period. Looking to cut the lead to three, however, Tennessee’s ensuing extra point try was blocked and returned for two points by Auburn’s Quinton Reese.
Tennessee trailed 29-23 after three quarters, but went ahead for good less than four minutes into the final period. Manning’s 73-yard touchdown pass to Marcus Nash would ultimately be the difference as the Volunteers led for the first time since the opening quarter, 30-29.
Both teams were kept off the scoreboard over the final 11:14 as the Volunteers won the second SEC title game decided by a single point in four years. Price (eight catches, 161 yards) and Nash (nine catches, 126 yards) had big receiving nights for a Tennessee offense that finished with more than 500 yards. Lewis rushed for 127 yards in the victory.
Auburn managed just 247 yards in the loss, including negative-15 rushing. Quarterback Dameyune Craig passed for 262 yards and two touchdowns in the loss.
Wayback Machine: SEC Sports
In what would be the final full season with Bowden at the helm, Auburn would bounce back by topping Clemson in the Peach Bowl, 21-17. At 10-3, Auburn finished 11th in the final polls.
Tennessee entered bowl season with national championship aspirations, but not for long. The Volunteers were handled by co-national champion Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, 42-17. Tennessee would respond by repeating as SEC champions and winning the national title the following season.
Since the inception of the SEC Championship game in 1992, Tennessee has made five appearances and are currently on a 3-game losing streak in the conference title game. Its first appearance was a 1-point win on this day a quarter-century ago.
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