Tennessee had not reached the Sugar Bowl, the SEC’s contract bowl game, since 1970. But they were winning consistently. The Vols had reached nine straight bowls, including four in succession under Johnny Majors, who came to Knoxville after winning a national championship at Pitt in 1976. The 1985 Tennessee football team would break the Sugar Bowl dry spell and play a significant spoiler role in the national championship race by the time all was said and done.
Tony Robinson opened the season at quarterback and played well, completing 64% of his passes and getting 8.7 yards per attempt before an injury ended his year. Darryl Dickey stepped in and posted even better numbers, albeit narrowly. Dickey connected on 65 percent of his passes with an 8.9 YPA. And though Dickey attempted almost as many passes as Robinson (131 to 143), the former only had one interception against seven for the original starter.
Whomever was at quarterback enjoyed the benefit of All-American receiver Tim McGee a future part of the 1988 Cincinnati Bengals’ Super Bowl team. In 1985, McGee led the SEC in both catches and receiving yards, with 50 and 947 respectively. The running game was led by Keith Davis, who ran for 684 yards. On the other side of the ball Chris White, a running back converted to the secondary, intercepted nine passes.
Tennessee was unranked to open the season, and they would be tested immediately. UCLA, ranked #10 and the eventual Pac-10 champs, came to Knoxville. The game ended in a 26-26 tie. Two weeks later, the Vols hosted top-ranked Auburn.
The first possession let the Tigers know they had trouble. Tennessee marched 76 yards for a score, keyed by a 37-yard pass to McGee. Robinson was brilliant, going 17/30 for 259 yards and four touchdowns. The defense kept the future Heisman Trophy winner, Auburn’s Bo Jackson, under control, allowing him 80 yards on 17 carries. The Vols led 24-0 in the third quarter and won 38-20.
They moved into the polls at #16 and then did not play well in a 31-29 win over a weak Wake Forest team. A 17-10 loss at seventh-ranked Florida sent Tennessee to #20 in the rankings and made an October 19 visit to Alabama must-win for any SEC title hopes.
Tennessee was motivated to win for defensive coordinator Ken Donahue, who had been on the staff for the great Bear Bryant at Alabama. The defense would have to play an outsized role in this game because Robinson broke his leg. The Vols clung to a 16-14 lead and hung on for the win when ‘Bama’s 61-yard field goal try missed at the gun.
A non-conference date with a good Georgia Tech team was next—give Majors credit for taking on tough opponents in addition to his SEC slate—and another tie was the result, this one 6-6. Tennessee bounced back with wins over bad teams in Rutgers and Memphis, by scores of 40-0 and 17-7 respectively.
It was mid-November and Tennessee and Florida were tied in the loss column in the SEC race. Even though the Gators had the tiebreaker, they had something else—NCAA probation and were ineligible to go to the Sugar Bowl. So the Vols had a half-game lead for the berth in New Orleans over Alabama, LSU and Georgia, with Auburn a game back.
Tennessee blew out mediocre teams in Ole Miss and Kentucky by a combined 76-14. Then the Vols finished the season with a 30-0 win over lowly Vanderbilt. Tennessee shared first place with Florida and moved into the Top 10, at #8 in the polls. The Vols were ticketed they for the Sugar Bowl to face the second-ranked Miami Hurricanes.
Meanwhile, the Orange Bowl, which would kick off at the same time as the Sugar had #1 Penn State and #3 Oklahoma. Miami head coach Jimmy Johnson was on the campaign trail in the buildup to New Year’s Night, arguing his team should be #1 if the Sooners knocked off the Nittany Lions.
Johnson’s campaigning was finding a receptive audience—in the Tennessee locker room, where they found the presumptiveness of a Hurricane bowl win to be insulting.
After spotting the ‘Canes a 7-0 lead, Tennessee—and their fans—took over. The Superdome was packed to the brim with orange-clad fans, and the crowd noise, along with Tennessee’s constant blitzing, gave this game an unexpected turn.
Tennessee tied the game early in the second quarter and took the lead 14-7 with five minutes to go before halftime. The defense intercepted four passes and completely shut down the Miami running game. Once Tennessee had the momentum, they were a freight train that couldn’t be stopped.
Meanwhile, the Vols were the ones who could run the football. Jeff Powell ran for 104 yards, including a 60-yard touchdown jaunt in the third quarter that made the score 28-7 and all but sealed the deal. The game ended 35-7. Oklahoma would beat Penn State, but thanks to Tennessee it didn’t matter to anyone in New Orleans.
Tennessee’s Sugar Bowl win announced that they were more than just a bowl team, they were now a regular contender. Majors brought them to three more major bowls, all in succession from 1989-91 and turned the reins over to Philip Fulmer, who eventually won a national title in 1998.