Over the course of recorded Tennessee football history, was there ever a better afternoon to be a Vol fan than Sept. 29, 1973?
That subject is open to considerable debate among Vol fans.
That was the "Last Saturday in September," although that name has never "stuck" in the public's mind to describe the series.
It was traditional in those days for Tennessee and Auburn to square off that day, in a game that often separated the "contender" from the "pretender."
This game marked the Silver Anniversary of the series between the Vols and Tigers, one that started in 1900 in Birmingham (Auburn 23, Tennessee 0, Nov. 10) and had been played every year since 1956, home and home in Knoxville and Birmingham. Before 1956, the last game between the two teams had been in 1939. The odd-numbered years were played in Knoxville.
Both teams were undefeated, each compiling a 2-0 record. Tennessee had victories over Duke and Army, while Auburn had triumphs over Oregon State and UT-Chattanooga.
The Associated Press ranked Tennessee No. 9, Auburn No. 11.
(Alas, the Vols finished 8-4, ranked No. 20, while Auburn finished 6-6.)
The Vols had lost three straight to the Tigers, four of the last seven, and fans all across Big Orange Country hoped things would turn out better this day.
It rained most of the second half. And that's putting it mildly.
The memory is still fresh of the storm coming from the north end, as the heavens opened up over Ayres Hall, and "liquid sunshine," as they say in the state of Florida, moved quickly southward.
Just when the fans in the south end were laughing about their compatriots in the north end getting drenched, here came the wind and rain toward the Tennessee River, and everybody was drenched.
"I had never played in a game when it rained that hard," linebacker Hank Walter, now a Knoxville attorney, said this week. "It was the hardest rain I can remember."
When the final horn sounded, Tennessee won 21-0, as barefoot placekicker Ricky Townsend kicked two field goals, and Emmon Love caught a TD pass from Condredge Holloway.
Walter capped his day with an interception that he returned 38 yards for a score.
He had 12 tackles, eight assists, and a fumble recovery.
Not since Steve Kiner put up similar numbers in the 1969 Alabama game (11 tackles, three assists, an interception, five tackles for loss, a caused fumble, and four hurried passes) had a Vol linebacker been so dominant. The Associated Press named Walter national lineman of the week for his efforts.
When asked about the award, Walter said he never received any tangible evidence of the honor, no plaque, no trophy, nothing. He did, however, quickly recall the game's biggest play. Auburn was headed to the south end zone, trailing 13-0, as the rain pelted the Shields-Watkins Field artificial turf.
"I was going out to cover one of their receivers," Walter said. "Their quarterback didn't throw a very good pass. I was able to intercept it and had a wide-open path to the end zone.
"I didn't realize I had played as well as I had. I didn't realize why the reporters were talking with me until I saw the stat sheet. It boosted my confidence."
Tennessee coach Bill Battle sent out Neil Clabo repeatedly to keep the Tigers at bay, and he did so in fine fashion.
One punt ended up going 71 yards to the Tiger 5.
Auburn folks did not take kindly to Tennessee's little kicking exhibition. Auburn used the recollection of Tennessee punting, many times on first down, to inspire the troops for the game the following season, as if the Tigers needed further motivation.
Tennessee did finally play at Auburn the next season after lengthy discussions between the two schools, and Auburn won, 21-0, this time under considerably better weather conditions.
Tennessee came to Auburn to stay in 1980, a 42-0 Volunteer win.
Battle did have the line of the day as he dried his face with a towel in a noisy Vol dressing room under the east stands.
Asked about the inclement weather, Battle could only say, "Rain, what rain? I didn't see anything but sunshine out there."
Somehow, the win didn't impress the pollsters, given that the Vols were still No. 9 heading into the next week's game against Kansas. But it did get the attention of Vol fans in a big way.
No one cared about being soaked to the bone. The final score made the afternoon quite worthwhile. Even though the Vols faded badly down the stretch run of the 1973 season, this game makes the short list, probably in the Top 20, of games that fans remember fondly many years later.
For those callers on talk radio who might have opined that Tennessee has never played well in the rain, this was one case in which they really did.
Tom Mattingly is a freelance contributor.