EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the fourth story in a series counting down the top five players in University of Tennessee football history. The Times Free Press previously published companion series on Alabama (May 4-8) and Georgia (May 11-15).
Let's go ahead and get those Peyton Manning negatives out of the way from his days at Tennessee.
In his four seasons shining at quarterback for Phillip Fulmer's Volunteers, the heralded son of Southeastern Conference legend Archie Manning went 0-4 against Eastern Division rival Florida.
Never mind that Manning didn't even start the 1994 contest and was on the bench as the Gators built a 17-0 lead within the first 18 minutes. Never mind that he played brilliantly inside the Swamp in 1995, passing for 326 yards and two touchdowns, and was not part of a Vols defense that collapsed after halftime. He threw for a school-record 492 yards and four scores in the 1996 matchup, but his touchdown count was matched by his number of interceptions, and his 353 yards and three touchdowns during his final crack at Florida will forever be overshadowed by Tony George's 89-yard interception return for a score.
"It bothers me that we never did beat Florida," Manning told reporters after the 33-20 loss in 1997, "but I can't control the way other people view Tennessee or view my career. I've got thick skin. I'm disappointed, but this is football.
"You've got to prepare for the good and the bad."
Manning also went 1-1 against Memphis and had a well-publicized mooning incident that doesn't need rehashing, and that's where his detractors run out of topics.
If there was anybody saddled with significant hype entering his college career who not only delivered but surpassed those lofty expectations, it was the 6-foot-5, 220-pounder from New Orleans. Manning went from the third-stringer to the starter within the first month of his freshman season and left Knoxville with 33 university records — his 89 career touchdown tosses were more than the next two Vols quarterbacks, Andy Kelly and Heath Shuler, had combined (72) — seven SEC standards and two NCAA marks.
His two NCAA records were the lowest single-season and career interception percentages. Manning was picked off just four times out of 380 attempts in 1995 for a 1.05% interception rate per attempt, and his career clip was 2.39%.
Manning's three losses as the starter against Florida represented half of his setbacks in his stellar stint that yielded a 39-6 record, which established an NCAA mark for career triumphs as the starting quarterback. It would be broken in 2004 by Georgia's David Greene, who notched 42 career wins, with Kellen Moore of Boise State eventually setting the mark at 50.
Among the SEC records Manning set were career passing yards (11,201), career completions (863), career completion percentage (62.49) and career 300-yard passing games (18).
Even more important than his numbers was Manning's ability to enhance the Vols on the national stage. The "SEC on CBS" television package began in 1996, and Tennessee quickly became a popular broadcast selection due to its star quarterback.
There have been SEC players showcased significantly on CBS — Georgia's Greene and David Pollack in the early 2000s and Florida's Tim Tebow in the late 2000s quickly come to mind — but Manning was the first of those. His face time on national television made him the most prominent player in the sport, which led to resentment among rival fan bases.
Of course, the outcomes played a role in that as well. Manning never lost to Georgia, leading the Vols to a 38-13 shellacking in 1997 over a Bulldogs team that would win 10 games, and his three straight wins over Alabama included two trips to Birmingham in which Tennessee tallied a whopping 79 points.
An 80-yard pass to Joey Kent on the first play of the 1995 game at Legion Field set the tone for Tennessee's 41-14 trouncing, which was the first win by the Vols in that rivalry in a decade (the 17-17 tie in 1993 was eventually forfeited by Alabama due to NCAA sanctions).
Manning surprised many among SEC circles in January 1994 by committing to the Vols over Ole Miss, where his father starred and where younger brother Eli would excel as well. He stunned the football world again in March 1997 by announcing that a lucrative career in the NFL could wait one more year.
"I didn't want to be 50 years old wondering what my senior year in college would have been like," said Manning, who earned his undergraduate degree several weeks after revealing his plans. "It was one of the best decisions I've ever made."
Manning did not let the 1997 loss at Florida define him, leading the Vols to a 10-1 regular season and, coupled with Florida stumbling against LSU and Georgia, their first trip to the SEC title game. Tennessee trailed Auburn 20-10 at half inside the Georgia Dome, but Manning wound up throwing for 373 yards and four touchdowns to propel the Vols to a 30-29 victory.
After the league championship and before a 42-17 loss to Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, Manning won the Maxwell, Davey O'Brien and Johnny Unitas awards and finished second to Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson in the Heisman Trophy balloting. No need to rehash that Heisman situation, either.
Though Michigan and Nebraska shared that season's national title, Manning's decision to return for his final year and deliver Tennessee an SEC crown made him as beloved as any player who has run through the "T."
Manning was the top overall pick in the 1998 NFL draft and would become the first player in NFL history to earn five MVP honors. Yet he always found time to support his alma mater, whether on the Tennessee sideline, through financial means or, more recently amid the COVID-19 pandemic, in virtual classes led by his former professors.
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