Miami and Tennessee played a game with national championship implications at the 1986 Sugar Bowl, with the Hurricanes looking to get win and get help, while the Volunteers were out to play spoiler. Here’s a look back at the road both teams took through the 1985 college football season before their paths converged in New Orleans on New Year’s Day.
Tennessee had not reached the Sugar Bowl, the SEC’s contract game, since 1970. But they were winning consistently, having reached nine straight bowls, including four in succession under Johnny Majors, who came to Knoxville after winning a national championship at Pitt in 1976.
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 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 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 and 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 and 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 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, with one loss apiece. 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, as they headed for the Sugar Bowl.
Miami had exploded onto the national stage in 1983 when they won a stunning national title over Nebraska. The mastermind behind it, Howard Schnellenberger, had immediately left to the United States Football League, a fledgling organization that had a brief splash in challenging the NFL.
Jimmy Johnson took over and 1984 was a little more trying. The Hurricanes made a major bowl, the Fiesta, but defensive problems down the stretch led to high-scoring losses against Maryland, Boston College and to UCLA in the Fiesta Bowl. The ‘Canes lost respect nationally and were unranked to start the 1985 season.
Vinny Testaverde took over at quarterback for the departed Bernie Kosar. Testaverde threw for over 3,200 yards, averaging 9.2 YPA, completing 61 percent of his passes and finished with a 21/15 TD-INT ratio in leading the most pass-oriented offense of all ten teams that reached major bowl games.
Sophomore Michael Irvin is the big name among the receivers, and he finished with 840 yards and joined Brian Blades as big-play threats on the outside. Irvin averaged over 18 yards a catch, while Blades was almost at 22 yards per catch.
But the best target in 1985 was tight end Willie Smith, who caught 48 passes for 669 yards and was a consensus All-American selection. In the backfield, Alonzo Highsmith and Warren Williams gave some balance to the attack.
Miami still lost 35-23 to Florida to open the year and there was no reason to think this would be a big year in Coral Gables. The Hurricanes got themselves back on track with a rout over lowly Rice 48-20. Miami blew out Boston College 45-10, which was nice payback for Doug Flutie’s legendary desperation pass a year earlier, but Flutie was gone and BC wasn’t very good. Miami beat two more sub-.500 teams in East Carolina, 27-15 and Cincinnati, 38-0.
October 19 would be one of the most significant days in football history. Miami, still unranked, traveled to Oklahoma to play the third-ranked Sooners.
Midway through the first quarter, Testaverde hit Irvin with a touchdown pass. Oklahoma answered, when their sophomore quarterback Troy Aikman hit tight end Keith Jackson on a 50-yard pass that set up the tying touchdown. Later in the second quarter came the play that altered the course of history.
Hurricane defensive tackle Jerome Brown broke through and sacked Aikman. The quarterback broke his ankle and was gone for the year. Because of this, Oklahoma would revert to its wishbone, option-oriented attack of years past. Aikman would transfer to UCLA and play in a pro-style scheme, turning into the #1 pick in the draft.
He would picked by the Dallas Cowboys and their rookie head coach in Jimmy Johnson. Aikman won two Super Bowls for Johnson, playing with Michael Irvin. Then he won a third, after Switzer took over the Cowboys. And all the while, Jerome Brown was with the division rival Philadelphia Eagles, playing several big games against Johnson, Aikman and Switzer.
In the short-term, Oklahoma was a mess for the rest of this game. Testaverde threw for 270 yards and Miami pulled away to a 27-15 win. They moved to #15 in the polls.
A 45-7 win over lowly Louisville set up a trip to 10th-ranked Florida State. Miami trailed 24-14 at the half and 27-21 with a little more than eleven minutes left. Testaverde was in the groove though, throwing for 339 yards. He threw the go-ahead touchdown with 9:55 to go, and then added another TD pass with three minutes left. Miami won 35-27 and cracked the Top 10, at #8.
The ‘Canes traveled to Maryland, to whom they had blown a 31-0 lead and lost a year earlier. This was a good Terps team, one whose only other losses were to Penn State—who would conclude the regular season undefeated—and Michigan, who lost just once.
Add Miami to the list of excellent teams that beat Maryland, this one 29-22. It moved the Hurricanes to #4. They beat Colorado State 24-3 and then brought a miserable end to the Notre Dame coaching career of Gerry Faust, beating the Irish 58-7 and drawing a national media backlash for running it up (something Faust does not blame Johnson for and for which the charge is unfair). Either way, the negative media coverage didn’t’ prevent Miami from being ranked #2 going into the Sugar Bowl.
The buildup to New Year’s Night had Johnson on the campaign trail. Penn State was #1, the nation’s only undefeated team and would be a clear #1 if they won the Orange Bowl against Oklahoma. The Sooners were #3 and the media hype was saying that OU would vault to the top spot if they beat the Nittany Lions.
How could that be, Johnson wanted to know, given the head-to-head result in Norman? The odds are good that in such a scenario there would have been a split national title, something that makes no sense in light of Miami’s decisive win over Oklahoma. But there was never a chance to find out. Because all of 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.
Miami started well, taking a 7-0 lead on the first possession, keyed by a successful fake punt conversion. Then Tennessee and their fans took over. The Superdome was packed to the brim with gaudy orange, and the crowd noise, along with Tennessee’s constant blitzing, something Testaverde had not been subjected to all year, 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 Testaverde four times and completely shut down the Miami running game, with the ‘Canes only able to get 32 yards on the ground. It was a game heavy on penalties, with each team drawing double-digit flags and being charged over 100 penalty yards.
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 in a game that was playing at the same time, but it wouldn’t matter to anyone here.
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. Miami, of course was not going away. They would win a national title in 1987 and come within one play of doing so in 1986 and 1988. Johnson would go to the NFL and win Super Bowls. Everything turned out well for all involved in the 1986 Sugar Bowl.