KNOXVILLE — The setting was one for the ages Saturday on Rocky Top, but Tennessee’s upset bid against No. 1 LSU got old quickly.
Johnny Majors and many of his teammates from UT’s 1956 SEC championship team were on hand. Majors was talking before the game on the Vol Network about how Tennessee upset the top-ranked Tigers in Knoxville when they had Billy Cannon in 1959, and mentioned his Tennessee team upsetting Bo Jackson-led Auburn when it was No. 1 in 1985.
Fourteen players from the 1951 national championship team were in attendance, too. So was Peyton Manning.
But as the far as Saturday’s matchup, the most significant former Vols player in attendance was LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis, who made his emotional return to Neyland Stadium as an adversary.
His hard-hitting Tigers intercepted two passes, setting up LSU’s first score when Morris Claiborne returned the first one 89 yards to the Tennessee 5-yard line, and held UT to 239 yards in a satisfying performance for Chavis.
Still better known as “Chief” among players, Chavis got an early birthday present. Today is his 55th birthday.
“This week he hadn’t said much, but we knew as a team this game was a special one for him,” Claiborne said. “We played for him tonight.”
Of course, Chavis’ defense didn’t have to deal with Tennessee sophomore quarterback Tyler Bray, who is expected to be out another 3-5 weeks after breaking the thumb on this throwing hand in last week’s home loss to Georgia.
Simms completed only 30 percent of his passes (6 of 20) and threw both of the interceptions. Simms started against LSU last year, but was jumping in the deep end by making his first start of 2011 against LSU.
“It was a good defense and they played hard for the whole game,” Simms said. “I am really disappointed in myself for the two first half turnovers. You can’t do that against a good team.”
Tennessee’s young, injury-riddled team generated some bright spots. True freshman Devrin Young returned one kickoff 60 yards and another 37 yards, and despite his thin frame, he carried a tackler the final four or five yards on an early 21-yard reception via a shovel pass.
Tennessee finished with 29 carries for 111 yards. Senior Tauren Poole appeared more decisive, and the linemen in front of him created more push at times than they have against inferior fronts.
“As bad our running game’s been we ran the ball pretty good against a great defense,” UT coach Derek Dooley said. “I saw some good things. In every game there are things that disappoint you. In every game there are things you feel good about.”
Tennesssee’s inferior depth and experience surfaced for essentially the entire second half against LSU’s physical offense.
“That game was not complex,” Dooley said. “I’m not sure how many mistakes we made — we made a couple on offense in the first half — but in that second half they keep hitting us. I don’t know what else to do. I could get up there and scream at them but that’s not going to help.”
Notes: Former “Voice of the Vols” George Mooney, who died Thursday, received a tribute on the JumboTron at the end of the first quarter. Mooney also founded the Vol Navy. … Tennessee’s Anthony Anderson caught a Matt Darr punt to start LSU at its own 1-yard line. … LSU lost a timeout to challenge Michael Palardy’s PAT kick late in the first half. The kick was clearly good. … Former “Tonight Show” band leader and Grammy-winnign trumpeter Doc Severinsen performed at halftime with UT’s Pride of the Southland Band.