By Tom Mattingly
Over the years, there have been a number of good bowl games and an equal number of bad ones. Bowl games are hyped to the heavens, but you never know what you’re getting.
One of the most intriguing Tennessee bowl games took place Dec. 30, 1994, at Florida Field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville. The game didn’t, however, involve Tennessee, versus Florida.
The 50th Gator Bowl contest, the finale of three “Outback Gator Bowls,” matched No. 24 (Coaches Poll) Tennessee and No. 17 (Coaches Poll) Virginia Tech. The game was played in Gainesville because of renovations to the real Gator Bowl in Jacksonville. In exchange for participating in the game, each team received $1.5 million from the Gator Bowl Association.
The matchup of Virginia Tech and Tennessee was the first game between the two teams since 1937, an unusual fact since both teams are located just 3.5 hours apart by car. This proximity generated multiple news stories about towns tying between the two schools and the divided loyalties of their fans.
The rivalry seemed amplified by a basketball game held the day prior to the Gator Bowl that pitted the two schools’ varsity teams against each other, a game won by Tech 73-64.
The Vols had lost quarterbacks Jerry Colquitt in the opener at UCLA and Todd Helton in the Mississippi State game, leaving leadership of the Vol offense to rookies Peyton Manning and Branndon Stewart. The Vols concluded the regular season with two decisive wins, 52-0 against Kentucky and 65-0 at Vanderbilt, finishing 7-4.
Virginia Tech starred 7-l, but lost three of its last four games, including a regular season-ending 42-23 home loss to Virginia.
Those fans who might have been worried about Tennessee not being ready to play had to have been impressed by the Vols’ wire-to-wire effort.
Tennessee bolted to a 35-10 halftime lead, behind the running of Morristown’s James “Little Man” Stewart, a senior who scored twice and tossed a 19-yard touchdown pass to Kendrick Jones for good measure.
Manning threw a 36-yard touchdown pass to fellow freshman Marcus Nash, and tailback Jay Graham added another touchdown. The Vols were on cruise control from that point on. The Vols had scored 35 points in just 11:46 possession time.
Stewart added a third touchdown in the fourth quarter. All-American placekicker John Becksvoort booted a 19-yard field goal and added all six extra points.
Tyrone Hines had an interception that led to the Vols’ first score, while Shawn Summers had a long punt return to set up the fourth period score. The final was 45-23.
Stewart carried 22 times for 85 yards. Manning, whose father, Archie, led a 34-17 Ole Miss win over Tech in the 1968 Liberty Bowl, completed 12 of 19 passes for 189 yards.
Joey Kent caught six passes for 116 yards, including a diving, all-out effort for 42 yards the play before Nash’s TD catch.
“We’re clicking on a lot of cylinders right now,” Phillip Fulmer said afterwards. “We had a great game plan on both sides of the ball.”
One other aspect of the game caught everybody’s attention.
Fans were treated to the sight of Tennessee’s trademark orange and white checkerboards in the north end zone.
The effect was surreal, something out of the old “Twilight Zone” television series. If that weren’t enough, as the designated “home team,” Tennessee also used Florida’s dressing room.
As for the checkerboards in the end zone, former USC quarterback Pat Haden noted on the WTBS broadcast that Steve Spurrier had some thoughts about the trademark Vol squares being seen on the Florida greensward.
“I was talking to the groundskeeper before this game,” Haden said.
Haden mentioned the unnamed groundskeeper recalling Spurrier’s thoughts on the orange squares. Spurrier was adamant on what needed to happen after the game, maybe starting the next day. “I don’t mind it being in here for one game, but we have recruits coming in Jan. 13, and I want those checkerboards out of there.”
Stewart saw it coming.
“They’re going to come back and start the season like we ended it,” Stewart said.
He knew whereof he spoke.
The game catapulted the Vols to an amazing four-year run from 1995 through 1998, 45-5 over that time frame, with two SEC titles, the 1998 national championship, and a visit to the White House.
Many times, bowl games foretell the seasons to come. The 1994 Gator Bowl gave a provocative glimpse of Tennessee gridiron success that would follow over the next four years.