Season openers to remember

By Tom Mattingly

The calendar tells us that the 2021 University of Tennessee season-opening football game against Bowling Green is just around the comer.

Here are several of the memorable first games.

Sept. 24, 1921, Tennessee 27, Emory & Henry 0, Shields-Watkins Field. It was the first game for the Vols in their new stadium that bore the names of its benefactors, Knoxville banker, William Simpson Shields, and his wife, Alice Watkins Shields. The new stadium held 3,200 fans, but considerably fewer showed up for the dedicatory game. Rufe Clayton scored the first touchdown on an 11-yard run. In a sign of things to come, the Vols did not give up a point that season, blanking not only Emory & Henry, but Chattanooga, Florida, and Sewanee as well.

Sept. 23, 1922, Tennessee 50, Emory & Henry 0, Shields-Watkins Field. This game marked the debut of the orange jerseys, fulfilling the dream of 1922 captain Roy Striegel of Perryville (Decatur County). The previous jerseys had been black with orange piping on the sleeves.

Sept. 28, 1946, Tennessee 13, Georgia Tech 9, Shields-Watkins Field. It was teacher versus pupil, Gen. Bob Neyland versus Bobby Dodd, in Neyland’s first game since his return from World War II.  When the Vols were backed up to their own goal late in the game leading 13-7, tailback Walter Slater killed enough time giving up a safety to deny the Yellow Jackets a chance for the go-ahead score.

Sept. 26, 1959, Tennessee 3, No. 3 Auburn 0, Shields-Watkins Field. This was the first of two major upsets in the 1959 campaign, the other being a 14-13 win over LSU in November. Cotton Letner, a native of Ten Mile (Meigs County), booted a 20-yard field goal at the north end in the second quarter. That was the game’s only score on an abysmally hot day.

Sept. 14, 1968, No. 9 Tennessee 17, Georgia 17, Neyland Stadium.  In the first game between the Vols and Bulldogs since 1937, the game went beyond the final horn before being decided. Quarterback Bubba Wyche threw a TD pass to wideout Gary Kreis and a two-point conversion to tight end Ken DeLong to garner the deadlock. The game was played on a new artificial surface called Tartan Turf put out by 3M, with Sports Illustrated’s Dan Jenkins writing about “A Rouser on a Rug.”

Sept. 9, 1972, No. 15 Tennessee 34, Georgia Tech 3, Grant Field, Atlanta. Tennessee legend Condredge Holloway made his debut under center, becoming the first African American signal-caller in SEC history.

Sept. 10, 1977, California 27, Tennessee 17, Neyland Stadium.  A capacity crowd saw John Majors’ debut as Tennessee head coach. Quarterback Jimmy Streater had an 80-yard TD run in the first quarter that electrified the crowd.

Sept. 6, 1980, No. 16 Georgia 16, Tennessee 15, Neyland Stadium. Tennessee jumped to a 15-0 lead in the third quarter, but fell victim to a safety and two touchdown runs from freshman running back Herschel Walker in a loss to the eventual national champions.

Aug. 26, 1990, No. 8 Tennessee 31, No. 5 Colorado 31, Anaheim Stadium, Anaheim, Calif. The two top 10 teams battled on a Sunday afternoon on the west coast in Pigskin Classic I, with the Vols twice battling back from two 14-point deficits in the fourth quarter. Tennessee won the SEC title and finished No. 4 in the final AP poll, while Colorado won a share of the national championship.

Sept. 5, 1998, No. 10 Tennessee 34, No. 17 Syracuse 33, The Carrier Dome, Syracuse, N.Y. Jeff Hall kicked the game-winning field goal at the final horn to propel the Vols to a memorable season. It was a back-and-forth type game with the Vols having the last possession and making the most of it. The Vols ended up 13-0 and defeated Florida State to win the first BCS national championship.

Sept. 2, 2006, No. 23 Tennessee 35, No. 9 California 18, Neyland Stadium. Coming off a 5-6 season in 2005, Tennessee jumped to a 35-0 third quarter lead and won in impressive fashion. Erik Ainge completed 11 of 18 passes for 291 yards and three scores, two to Robert Meachem and one to Jayson Swain.

Sept. 1, 2016, No.  5 Tennessee 20, Appalachian State 13, Neyland Stadium. In a hotly contested season opener, the cross-mountain rivals battled to a 13-13 tie after 60 minutes. Josh Dobbs earned the game-winner on a short run at the south end in the first extra period.

Over the years, the season’s first game is always anxiously awaited and has contributed greatly to helping define the history of Tennessee football.

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