This week in Tennessee history

In 1996, one of the most disappointing losses in Tennessee history took place as the Vols suffered their one and only loss to the Memphis Tigers.

Photo by Ben Ozburn

The Rifleman carries the Tennessee flag across the endzone after a Tennessee touchdown.

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Last week we took a look at a huge victory for the Vounteers in the Orange Bowl over Miami back in 2003. But not all of Tennessee’s past is sunshine and butterflies. This week, we will take a look at one of the most disappointing and infamous games in Tennessee history: the 1996 loss to Memphis.

Tennessee and Memphis have played a total of 23 times. The first meeting in the series was in 1968. After the most recent meeting, a 50-14 UT win in 2010, Tennessee leads the series 22-1. It should be 23-0. That is what many Vols fans believe, anyway. Heading into the game in 1996, Tennessee had won all 15 previous meetings against the Tigers, with Memphis coming within a touchdown only once.

The Vols were 41-1 in games played in November dating back to 1985 and Tennessee’s program was riding a massive wave of momentum, as it had gone 12-1 in 1995. UT had legitimate national championship aspirations. The Vols were led by Heisman Trophy contender Peyton Manning and were looking to roll through what was considered the “easy” part of their schedule to end the regular season 11-1 again. Memphis had other ideas.

On the night of Nov. 9, 1996, Tennessee rolled into Memphis assuming it would pick up an easy win against an opponent it had never lost to. Memphis was determined to finally end the losing streak against in-state rival Tennessee. Much of the game was abysmal offensively, with neither team being able to take control of the game.

However, in the third quarter, Tennessee led the Tigers, 14-7. That is when the magic started to happen for Memphis. After the Vols scored their final touchdown, they kicked the ball to the Tigers and return man Kevin Cobb. Cobb took the kick 95 yards and scored a touchdown. What made that play hard to stomach for Vols fans, and still makes it hard to stomach, is the fact that it shouldn’t have happened. On the return, Cobb’s elbow was down around the Memphis 25-yard line, meaning the play should have been stopped then.

The referees didn’t see it, though, and since there was no instant replay at the time, Tennessee fans were forced to accept a 14-all tie. Tennessee managed to kick a field goal to bring the score to 17-14 in favor of the Vols with approximately a minute left to play. Then, miraculously, lightning struck again for Memphis. Its offense, which had only amassed 152 yards all game, drove the length of the field behind quarterback Qadry Anderson. He threw the game-winning touchdown pass to Chris Powers with 34 seconds left.

Manning threw for 298 yards, but also threw two interceptions, one of which was returned over 70 yards. Tennessee’s run game was also stifled, as the Tigers had over 10 tackles for loss. Memphis defeated the Volunteers, 21-17, for the first time ever. This was perhaps the greatest moment in the Tigers’ athletics history. And the Vols experienced true and bitter disappointment for the first time in a long time.

Since 1996, Tennessee is 7-0 against Memphis.

Featured image by Ben Ozburn

Edited by Cody McClure