The most important work this season is already done: the Vols are back in the championship chase, and would be preparing for round one as we speak in a 12-team playoff, soon to become the clear answer to a season’s success. A job well done earns additional rewards: this team is in a New Year’s Six bowl for the first time, equivalent to the old BCS model where Tennessee last appeared following the 1999 season.
For Tennessee and now Clemson, the quarterbacks will give this one a feel of both present and future. Bowl games always create both the aftertaste and the first assumption. I do wonder if there’s a bit of either/or for Clemson in this one: the Tigers finished in the Top 5 and the CFP six years in a row from 2015-2020, with two national championships. But last season they went 10-3, finishing 14th. They’re obviously out of the playoff, but did retake the ACC and can earn another Top 5 finish if they close it out in the Orange Bowl. Or, with a loss, you’ve got back-to-back three-loss campaigns. That hasn’t happened at Clemson since 2010-11.
There’s a bit of full circle here: when last we met following the 2003 season, the Vols narrowly missed a bigger prize. Tennessee was sixth in the AP poll at the end of the regular season, eighth in the BCS. The Vols, Gators, and Dawgs were in a three-way tie for the SEC East, awarded to Georgia on its higher BCS ranking (seventh) the previous week. But after LSU beat them 34-13 in Atlanta, the Vols were the second-highest SEC team in the final rankings.
Because the Sugar Bowl had the national championship in 2003, there was no auto-bid for the highest remaining SEC team after LSU. And Miami was still both elite and in the Big East; they were ranked behind the Vols in the final rankings thanks to UT’s win in Coral Gables, but that extra conference champ bid left only a single at-large spot, which went to #5 Ohio State.
And from there, shenanigans: the Citrus Bowl took Georgia, the Outback took the home-grown Gators, and the #6 Vols fell all the way to the Peach Bowl, the same place they ended the previous season at 8-4. The opponent was unranked Clemson, trying to ascend in Tommy Bowden’s fifth year. There was a fight in pregame warmups, and Tennessee finished the game with 10 penalties for 119 yards. The Tigers won 27-14, and what could’ve been another Top 5 finish for Tennessee and a clear return to the program’s best days after 2002 was left instead with a frustrating aftertaste.
If you quantify those very best days by how high the Vols finished in the nation, the 2022 squad has a chance to join elite company. Tennessee finished in the Top 5 in 1967 and again in 1970. Since then:
Top 5 Finishes at Tennessee Since 1970:
- 1985: The SEC champion SugarVols went from unranked to #4 in the final poll after blowing out #2 Miami in New Orleans
- 1989: Another unranked-to-SEC-champs team, the CobbWebb Vols went 11-1 and earned a three-way tie for the league title, finishing #5 after beating then-SWC champs #10 Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl
- 1995: Peyton Manning’s sophomore season, the Vols lost at Florida but beat everyone else, including #4 Ohio State in the Citrus Bowl, to finish 11-1 and #3.
- 1998: The BCS national champions were #10 in preseason but #4 after beating Florida, and ran the table for the program’s first consensus national title since 1951. Tennessee went to #1 on November 9 and never relinquished it.
- 2001: A wild ride with one infamous and two memorable finishes down the stretch: #7 on November 18, #2 on December 2 after beating Florida, #8 after losing to LSU in Atlanta, then finishing at #4 after blowing out Michigan in the Citrus Bowl.
The work is already done this year in getting the program not just out of a 15-year wilderness, but back to the championship conversation. And Tennessee can also end it as a team not just in-the-hunt, but an 11-win, Top 5 squad that can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with anyone in the modern era behind 1998.
To get there, all of those five teams had to get one final Top 10 victory. The 2001 team got theirs in Gainesville in December after September 11, then beat #17 Michigan in the bowl game. The rest played a Top 10 squad in the postseason; it’s the nature of the beast in having a season this good.
If the Vols knock off #7 Clemson, they’ll also tie 1998 for the most wins over ranked teams in a single season at UT:
Wins vs Ranked Teams
- 6 in 1998: #17 Syracuse, #2 Florida, #7 Georgia, #10 Arkansas, #23 Mississippi State, #2 Florida State
- 5 in 2022: #17 Pittsburgh, #20 Florida, #25 LSU, #3 Alabama, #19 Kentucky
- 4 in 2001: #14 LSU, #12 South Carolina, #2 Florida, #17 Michigan
- 4 in 1991: #21 UCLA, #23 Mississippi State, #13 Auburn, #5 Notre Dame
The 2022 Vols have already tied the 1991 Vols by getting in seven ranked-vs-ranked games in a single season.
Even in the age of opt-outs, the bowl game gets the last and first word on a team’s present and future. This one can also make an even deeper connection with Tennessee’s past, putting the 2022 Vols with some incredible company.
We’ll be delighted to see a Tennessee team like this in a 12-team playoff. But until then, this Orange Bowl against Clemson will certainly do. And with a win, the Vols can continue to show that there aren’t too many Tennessee teams like this, period.
The 2022 Vols have given us an incredible journey. All that’s left is the destination.