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Memphis Ruined Your Day: 1996 Tennessee

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If you’re looking to know why a 26-point underdog beat Peyton Manning, I still can’t tell you.

Photo: Getty Images. Banner Society Illustration.

We’re honoring the chaos energy of Memphis football by reviewing storied highlights in “you played Memphis and that was a bad time for you.”

Today’s entry focuses on the 1996 Tennessee Volunteers, a team that, heading into their November meeting with Memphis, hadn’t lost to anyone except Florida since October 1994.

Any lofty goals Tennessee might have set for itself at the start of the 1996 season were essentially dashed before they played Memphis on November 9. Florida had already beaten the Volunteers, which meant no SEC division or conference title. Florida State, Arizona State, and Ohio State were all undefeated and ranked ahead of Tennessee, so it’s hard to see the dominoes that could have fallen to somehow get 11-1 Tennessee a national championship.

To put it another way, yes, Memphis broke into ‘96 Tennessee’s truck by beating them 21-17, but the stereo had already been ripped out by Steve Spurrier. (He didn’t even bother selling it. Just loved the thrill of petty theft.) If you are a Vol fan, I hope that gives you some small comfort, because everything that follows will not.

Let’s say you knew, on the morning of this game, that Memphis was about to turn in season-low efforts in each of the following categories:

  • Offensive first downs (9)
  • Total offense (153 yards)
  • Offensive plays run (53)
  • Passes completed (8)
  • Time of possession (22:07)

You’d probably feel pretty confident in Tennessee’s chances!

But what if you learned that the Tigers would win while reaching a season-high in points scored? (That high? 21. This Memphis offense could not pour it on if you gave them a bucket and two people to help hold it.) What would you foresee playing out to make all of these things true simultaneously?

There’s the bleakest option, “Peyton gets hurt.” Nope! Played the whole game, threw 40 passes, and only got sacked three times.

There’s the whiniest option, “the refs screwed Tennessee over.” The Volunteers did wind up with more penalties and penalty yards, but the margin wasn’t huge, and there were no major missed calls or iffy flags.

If it’s not conspiracy or cursed fate, maybe the answer is “Memphis gets a shitload of turnovers, or has a bunch of special teams success.” If the offense can’t move the ball, the other units must either be doing the scoring or setting them up with great field position, right? (That’s more or less what happened in the 1992 win over Arkansas.)

This is closer – the Tigers scored on a kickoff return and had a near pick-six that led to a one-yard touchdown drive. But it’s also still wrong, somehow.

The Vols had three drives that started inside the opponent’s 40 yard line. Memphis missed a field goal; Tennessee made their only attempt. Peyton threw two inopportune interceptions, but those were the only two Volunteer giveaways, and Memphis gave one of them back, losing a fumble at their own 18 yard line.

Is it overly conservative play calling? Partially; 85 yards on 49 rushing attempts is a pretty solid indicator that you’ve messed something up in the recipe. That’s still only nine more runs than Peyton had throws, and he finished nine attempts above his season average.

Sure, this game has Tennessee punting from the Memphis 33 and the Memphis 42 (that one was on 4th and 1), with the former sailing so far out of the back of the end zone that color commentator Mike Mayock declared it “one of the worst punts I’ve ever seen.”

Mike Mayock played on a New York Giants team that went 3-12-1!

But should you really need to play aggressively when you’re the Peyton-era Vols and they’re a Memphis team that spent the past month losing to Houston, Southern Miss, Southwest Louisiana (the future Louisiana-Lafayette), and Louisville? I mean, this is a real graphic they showed during the game.

CBS Sports

So is this.

And so is this, which popped up with five minutes left.

When that graphic popped up, Tennessee had held Memphis to 83 yards of offense. A win should not have required that kind of defensive smothering AND everything going right on special teams AND being aggressive on offense.

But apparently it did?

After the game, Phil Fulmer said, “I compliment Memphis. They made the plays when they had to.” This is one of the things you’re supposed to say when you’re on the wrong side of a giant upset, a vague conclusion that gives the underdog credit without really offering any explanation of the result. I have a hard time blaming him in this case. Most of the game feels like Tennessee is about to leave Memphis in their dust. It has the sense of a superhero origin story, where you’re regularly thinking “ah, Spider-Vol’s falling, which means he’s about to learn how to use his web shooters!” And then Spider-Vol hits the sidewalk.

The most Memphibian aspect of this loss is that it offered no real lesson for the Volunteers, no opportunity to turn struggle into growth. The Tigers attacked on defense, but Tennessee still had reasonable success moving the ball. Mistakes were made, but they weren’t outlandish in number or quality.

This physics problem needed a very precise combination of luck and timing to work. Memphis 21, Tennessee 17 is a Rube Goldberg machine that ends with an unsuspecting Phil Fulmer getting hit in the face by a frying pan launched from a toaster across the street. If you aren’t a Vols fan, I highly recommend it.