Tennessee, Missouri, and Top 15 Showdowns

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How rare is what we’ll see at 9:00 PM ET on Wednesday night?

In all the excitement of Tennessee’s hot start, we find ourselves asking not only if the Vols can win the SEC outright…but do so by such a margin that the quality of the rest of the league simply won’t matter. But before we get too far into the forest, a moment to appreciation this particular tree.

The Vols are up to #7 in this week’s AP poll, Missouri at #12, making this a Top 15 showdown. Tennessee played in six of these two years ago, including five Top 10 showdowns (all three games against Kentucky, plus Kansas and Gonzaga). So you’re forgiven if it feels a little normal.

But it is most definitely not: via in the media guide, in the last 20 seasons, the Vols have played in only 25 games when Tennessee and their opponent were both ranked in the Top 15:

  • Six times in 2019
  • A dozen for the Bruce Pearl era (2006-11)
  • Seven times in 2000 and 2001

Before those last two Jerry Green seasons, you have to go all the way back to 1983 to find one. So yes, this is rare.

Five of those 25 games have come in the NCAA Tournament. Of the 20 to take place in the regular season, half have come against Kentucky (6) and Florida (4). To find an SEC Top 15 showdown involving Tennessee and someone other than the Cats and Gators, you’ve gotta go back all of those 20 years to the Vols and Auburn in 2000 (a 29-point Tennessee triumph in Knoxville).

So on multiple fronts, Wednesday night is a unique opportunity. The Vols and Tigers will do it again in Knoxville on January 23, one week before the Vols host #3 Kansas. So while there may be additional opportunities this season, there are no guarantees. Enjoy the moment, even if you have to stay up late to do so.

Tennessee’s history in those Top 15 showdowns:

2019

  • #2 Kansas 87 #5 Tennessee 81 (OT) (Preseason NIT)
  • #7 Tennessee 76 #1 Gonzaga 73 (Phoenix)
  • #5 Kentucky 86 #1 Tennessee 69 (Lexington)
  • #7 Tennessee 71 #4 Kentucky 54 (Knoxville)
  • #8 Tennessee 82 #4 Kentucky 78 (SEC Tournament)
  • #13 Purdue 99 #6 Tennessee 94 (OT) (Sweet Sixteen)

Hoo boy, was this a fun ride. While we obviously won’t be duplicating a triple threat Top 10 with Kentucky this season, in non-pandemic times, we would’ve had another shot at #1 Gonzaga plus #9 Wisconsin in the non-conference this year.

Bruce Pearl Era

  • 2006: #10 Tennessee 76 #12 Florida 72 (Gainesville)
  • 2008: #15 Texas 97 #7 Tennessee 78 (Legends Classic)
  • 2008: #2 Tennessee 66 #1 Memphis 62 (Memphis)
  • 2008: #5 Tennessee 76 #11 Butler 71 (OT) (Second Round)
  • 2008: #13 Louisville 79 #5 Tennessee 60 (Sweet Sixteen)
  • 2009: #9 Gonzaga 83 #12 Tennessee 74 (Old Spice Classic)
  • 2010: #6 Purdue 73 #9 Tennessee 72 (Paradise Jam)
  • 2010: #3 Kentucky 73 #9 Tennessee 62 (Lexington)
  • 2010: #2 Kentucky 74 #15 Tennessee 45 (SEC Tournament)
  • 2010: #15 Tennessee 76 #5 Ohio State 73 (Sweet Sixteen)
  • 2010: #13 Michigan State 70 #15 Tennessee 69 (Elite Eight)
  • 2011: #11 Tennessee 83 #3 Pittsburgh 76 (Pittsburgh)

While some of the most memorable Pearl wins involved Tennessee playing outside the Top 15 (with memorable 2010 victories over #1 Kansas and 2 Kentucky just missing the cut in what would’ve made seven such games in that year alone), it’s still an impressive list. Rick Barnes also makes an appearance here, getting the best of the 2008 Vols after coming up short the two previous years. Credit Pearl for getting in one of these games in five of his six seasons in Knoxville.

2000 & 2001

  • 2000: #11 Tennessee 105 #7 Auburn 76 (Knoxville)
  • 2000: #14 Kentucky 81 #6 Tennessee 68 (Lexington)
  • 2000: #8 Tennessee 76 #12 Florida 73 (OT) (Knoxville)
  • 2001: #14 Virginia 107 #4 Tennessee 89 (Jimmy V Classic)
  • 2001: #4 Tennessee 83 #12 Syracuse 70 (Syracuse)
  • 2001: #13 Florida 81 #8 Tennessee 67 (Gainesville)
  • 2001: #11 Florida 88 #15 Tennessee 82 (Knoxville)

The 1999-00 season was my freshman year at UT, and those two games in Knoxville were incredible, especially for a program that hadn’t played in a Top 15 game in 15 years at that point. Auburn was on the cover of Sports Illustrated as their preseason number one, and the Vols annihilated them. The overtime win against Florida came after the Vols won in Gainesville in double overtime. And you can also see where it started to go wrong for Jerry Green the next year: the Virginia and Syracuse games were back-to-back, a classic, “We’re overrated, nevermind, we’re underrated!” sequence. And the last one was the second of a three-game home losing streak to Kentucky, Florida, and Georgia where the Vols gave up an average of 93 points per loss.

All told in these 25 games: 11-14, but just 4-7 as the higher ranked team. Let’s hope that’s trending in the other direction tomorrow night.

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Ethan
Ethan
22 days ago

I would love to find some kind of history of end of Jerry Green’s days at Tennessee. I was pretty young then, and wasn’t paying much attention, so all I have gathered was that he won at a really high level but was really unpleasant. It’s wild he never got hired anywhere else with that record too.

EDIT: I see that one Will Shelton has already written such a history!

Last edited 22 days ago by Ethan