‘There Ain’t a Cow in Texas’

By Tom Mattingly

After the 2001 Florida game, a 34-32 Vol victory, a noted sportswriter volunteered this comment about Tennessee tailback Travis Stephens’ performance.

“If he’s not the best running back in the country,” he opined and later wrote, “there ain’t a cow in Texas.”

NEWS FLASH: “There are cows in Texas.”

It wasn’t a “heist,” as was the case in the 1997 Heisman Trophy race when Charles Woodson’s selection over Peyton Manning broke hearts all over Big Orange Country. It was, however, still disappointing to Vol partisans that Stephens did not win the Doak Walker Award as the nation’s best running back. His credentials were certainly impressive enough. Regardless, his performance that day was amazing.

By any measure, it was a big game. It was Tennessee and Florida in the “Swamp,” Phillip Fulmer and Steve Spurrier on the sidelines, the inimitable Vern Lundquist on the CBS broadcast, Bob Kesling leading the way on the Vol Network, and Bob Bell presiding over the Comcast delayed telecast.

An SEC East title, a spot in the SEC championship game, and a continuing quest for a national championship were on the line. Florida was a prohibitive favorite, some sources giving as many as 18 points.

The Vols survived a Gator comeback and came home to a hero’s welcome where hundreds had gathered at Tom Black Track. On that Saturday night, those Vol fans who didn’t go to Gainesville enjoyed every moment of the celebration. It was the Vols’ first win on Florida Field since a 20-13 win in 1971.

The Vols’ triumph must have attracted considerable attention in Baton Rouge, La., as LSU prepared to face the Vols in the SEC title game a week later. LSU won, in a loss that clearly haunts Vol fans to this day.

Stephens, who had come to the Vols from Clarksville, was part of an amazing 1997 recruiting class. Stephens was one of three future running backs in the class, joining Travis Henry and Jamal Lewis. He had redshirted in 1999, giving him the starting (and starring) role in 2001 after Lewis and Henry had left or run out of eligibility.

On the day, he had 226 yards on 19 carries, with two touchdowns. He also helped set up two other scores. His was an inspirational presence from start to finish.

“The 5-9, 190-pound back showed no fear,” wrote Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples. “On a critical fourth-and-one play early in the fourth quarter, Stephens raised his palms to the sky and begged the Florida crowd for more noise. The Gators, riding a 362-yard passing day from [Rex] Grossman, led 23-21 when the Vols lined up near midfield. Tennessee quarterback Casey Clausen gained three yards on a naked bootleg to keep the drive alive. Two plays later, Stephens ripped off a 34-yard run to set up a two-yard Jabari Davis touchdown run.”

In that 2001 season, he had two 200-yard games (the other against Arkansas) and five 100-yard games, against Syracuse (111), Georgia (176), Alabama (162), South Carolina (120), and Memphis (124).

Whenever the Gators challenged, Stephens and the Vols had the necessary response: a 68-yard run to set up one score and runs of 49, 34 and 35. The 35-yarder found the end zone and gave the Vols a 20-14 lead in the third quarter.

All this happened against a Gator defense that had been giving up 85.9 yards rushing per game in 2001 and was the second-highest total ever given up by Florida defenders on Florida Field to that time.

In the past, Vol hopes had been shattered in close games and in some others not so close, in Gainesville. Stephens carried the Vols on his back and made his dreams, as well as those of the Vols and their fans, become reality.

He silenced the doubters, earning SEC and All-American honors. He was also the first All-American tailback for the Vols since John Majors in 1956. He was part of a Tennessee team that won at Arkansas, Alabama, Notre Dame, Gainesville, and in the Florida Citrus Bowl against Michigan.

The sign above the Vols’ dressing room door proclaims, “I Will Give My All for Tennessee Today.” Travis Stephens did exactly that. It was a great day for the Volunteers, in one of the most memorable games in Vol history.

As the afternoon turned to evening in North Florida, no one will forget where they were, whether at the game venue, in front of a television somewhere or listening to the radio broadcast. The words “game for the ages” are often overused, but this one was exactly that.