Heading into the 1997 SEC Championship game, the Tennessee Volunteers owned a 10-1 record and were the third-ranked team in college football. Facing them were the No. 11 Auburn Tigers, a 9-2 team led by head coach Terry Bowden.
With a win, the Volunteers would give head coach Phillip Fulmer his first SEC title and give them the chance to play for the program’s first national championship since 1967. With Heisman Trophy candidate Peyton Manning at quarterback, anything was possible, but this game turned out to be a dog fight initially won by Auburn.
After an early 40-yard touchdown pass by their senior quarterback, the Volunteers jumped out to a 7-0 lead in the first quarter at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
That didn’t last long.
Auburn rattled off 20 unanswered points thanks to a fumble return touchdown by defensive back Brad Ware and a 51-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Dameyune Craig to Tyrone Goodson to give the Tigers a 20-7 lead at halftime.
After a Tennessee field goal, the teams traded touchdowns to make the score 27-17 with just over six minutes to go in the third quarter. Then, the Sheriff dusted off his gun and went to work.
Manning would throw touchdown passes of 46 and 43 yards to Peerless Price and Marcus Nash, which included a little bit of madness when Auburn returned a blocked extra point for a two-point conversion of their own, but it wasn’t enough as Manning-to-Nash completed Tennessee’s comeback early in the fourth quarter, and they never looked back.
Tennessee held on to win the game, 30-29, and Manning was named the game’s MVP as his 373 passing yards and four touchdowns were the deciding factor on the night. Also, 127 rushing yards on 31 carries by running back Jamal Lewis never hurts.
The third-ranked SEC champions went on to face the undefeated No. 2 Nebraska Cornhuskers in the Orange Bowl with the championship game of the Bowl Alliance on the line, but they would get rolled in that game, 42-17.
The Vols rebounded by becoming conference champions once again in 1998, and they capped an undefeated regular season by defeating Florida State to win the National Championship at the Fiesta Bowl and finishing ranked No. 1 in the AP Poll.
The ’97 season was Manning’s last in Knoxville, but he ended it style with a comeback victory that will always be remembered by the Tennessee football faithful.