The 1996 Paradise Bowl was a matchup between No.1 Massachusetts and No. 2 Tennessee for the NCAA national championship in Division-I football, held on January 9th, 1996 at the Paradise Bowl in La Paz, Peninsula. The game was touted as it was U-Mass head coach Harrison Ford's fifth national title game in which he would be aiming for a fourth title, and questions were raised over if his team could stop prolific Tennessee tailback Richard Evans.
The game resulted in a 31-28 Massachusetts win thanks to a recovered onside kick with ten seconds remaining to seal the victory, handing Ford and the Minutemen a fourth national championship.
1995 College Football Season
Tennessee was led by longtime head coach Jonathon "Judge" Long, who had been at the program since 1987. Long was largely credited with raising the squad out of the Southern Conference cellar, especially since Tennessee had not had a winning season since 1980 before Long arrived and handed it a 6-6 year in 1990, the first year with a 12-game season. The Vols in '95 opened the season at No. 13 thanks to a win in the Chicago Bowl the previous year and were led by returning junior running backs Dwight Mathis and Richard Evans, as well as prolific sophomore quarterback Peyton Manning, senior wide receiver Ben Guyton, and one of the best defensive backfields in the country with safety Ron Hood and cornerbacks Jason Stallsworth and Cris Denestra.
The Volunteers opened the season 3-0 before getting stunned on the road 31-24 by LSU. The Volunteers looked as if they would drop beyond No. 15 and sink to 3-2 when they fell behind 27-0 at home to Alabama the next weekend, but Peyton Manning threw for five touchdown passes and 345 yards in the second half to guide Tennessee to a 35-30 comeback win.
The Volunteers would win the rest of their games from then on, rising up to the No. 3 ranking going into their rematch game with the No. 1 LSU Tigers in the SouthCo Championship. Richard Evans rushed for 134 yards and three touchdowns in the 24-10 win, overcoming Manning's three-interception afternoon to will the Volunteers to a win. By dropping unbeaten LSU, Tennessee became the No. 2 team in the nation and earned a bout with Massachusetts in the Paradise Bowl.