How Tennessee and Virginia Met in the 1991 Sugar Bowl

It may have been a rare occurrence, but looking at the mystical football mirror in 1990, if the image of Thomas Jefferson was reflected, then his university’s football team seemed to be among the fairest of them all.

Seemed to be.

If Davy Crockett popped up, then it was known his state university’s school was looking good.

As usual.

Virginia and Tennessee were mirror images of orange offensive nitro.  One of the stories of the 1990 season, the Cavaliers and the SEC champ Volunteers were football Siamese twins – too similar to separate.

“Johnny Majors has been a good friend of mine for 15 years,” George Welsh, the Cavs’ coach, said of Tennessee’s head man.  “We’ve exchanged information the last few years, and we’re doing some of the things they do.  Tennessee is an awfully good offensive football team with a very fine quarterback and great receivers – a little like us – and an underrated defensive team.”

A big-play offense that scored on 71 of its 146 possessions (48.6 percent) over the course of the season, Virginia’s volatile offense, directed with uncommon precision by Shawn Moore, averaged 500 yards and 40 points.

“We really get upset when we don’t score on every drive,” receiver Derek Dooley said.  “I guess it’s a matter of greed.”

Tennessee, with Andy Kelly as the offensive trigger, scored exactly the same amount of points (442) as Virginia and gained just 53 yards a game fewer.

Those quarterbacks each had arsenals of receivers to work with:  The Cavs’ Herman Moore, who tied the NCAA record of 10 consecutive games with touchdown catches.  His 1,190 yards was an ACC record, and his 54 receptions, 13 touchdown catches, and 2,504 career-receiving yards were all Virginia records.

“He’s the best in the country,” Georgia Tech coach Bobby Ross said unequivocally of Moore.  “If there is anyone better in the country, you’ll have to show him to me.”

Vols wide receiver Carl Pickens, one of college football’s most versatile performers and who set a school record with 13 receptions against Notre Dame on Nov. 10, led the SEC with 53 catches, one less than Herman Moore, for 971 yards.

Alvin Harper, another Vol pass-catcher, had another 37 receptions from Kelly for 567 yards.  Harper was second on Tennessee’s all-time pass-catching chart in career touchdowns (15), fifth in career receiving yardage (1,520) and sixth in career receptions.

Pickens was a throwback to an earlier football age, a man able to play on both sides of the ball.  The year before Pickens made the All-SEC freshman team as a receiver and Sporting News’ All-SEC freshman team as a defensive back.

Now a 6-foot-2, 188-pound redshirt sophomore, Pickens was a backup on offense and started the last five games in the secondary.  As a wide receiver, Pickens caught seven passes for 81 yards, an 11.6 yards per-reception average.  As a DB he intercepted five passes in the five games he played.

“And every one was a play of consequence,” Majors emphasized.

Tennessee’s Kelly strongly believed he, not Florida’s All-SEC quarterback Shane Matthews, was the conference’s best at that position.

And he had a case.

Kelly also compared favorably with Shawn Moore, acknowledged as one of the best, if not the best, in the nation.

  • Kelly completed 58.9 percent (179-of-304) of his passes for 2,241 yards.
  • Shawn Moore completed 59.8 percent (144-of-241) of his passes for 2,262 yards.

This was going to be a fun game, a fans’ game.  What it was not going to be was a game that impacted on the national championship.  Virginia, which rose to No. 1 for the first time in school history, finished 8-3.  Tennessee, considered a preseason national title contender, ended up 8-2-2 and far from any serious thoughts of No. 1.

This would be a historically significant moment, though, a first step in the postseason we know today.

What happened in the 1991 pairing greatly bothered Mickey Holmes, the Sugar Bowl’s executive director.  Holmes was mesmerized when he visited Virginia, at the time a scintillating 7-0 and on top the polls, and made no secret that the Cavaliers were also on top of the Sugar’s wish-list.

The school and the bowl agreed – that the Cavs would spend New Years in New Orleans.  Virginia then lost three of its last four games, but the Sugar Bowl was still on the hook.

Still, this would be an interesting Sugar Bowl.  For one thing, Majors was going to have to defend two Heisman-class Cavs.

Shawn Moore finished fourth in the ’90 vote, and battery mate Herman Moore finished sixth.  That vote represented the first time since 1964 that a quarterback and receiver from the same school ended up in the top 10 of the balloting.  Notre Dame quarterback John Huarte, who won the trophy, and Jack Snow (fifth) were the last pitch-and-catch tandem to finish among the Heisman elite.

Before that, the last combo from the same school was Navy end Ron Beagle, who was seventh, while finishing third was his quarterback George Welsh – the current Virginia coach.

Recap excerpted from the book “Sugar Bowl Classic: A History” by Marty Mulé, who covered the game and the organization for decades for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

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