When the Butch Jones era took a decisive turn from still possible to highly improbable via a 41-0 beat down from Georgia, we wrote on its failure to make lasting memories. The Vols missed opportunities to score a “we’re back!” win on the way to being nationally competitive, then saw the most famous first half of a season since at least 1992 turn into the most infamous second half of a season in my lifetime. As a result, though Butch Jones’ teams beat five ranked foes (and five more than Derek Dooley’s), even their most memorable victories still carry a “Yeah, but…” quality. In this way, some of my most enjoyable memories from those five years, at least for now, are lesser-known wins: Josh Dobbs’ coming out party at South Carolina in 2014, or bowl thrashings of Iowa and Northwestern that rightfully ushered in off-season optimism.
As we wrote two years ago, you can make a memory in any season. But you need that season to be ultimately successful for those memories to last well.
This happened in Jeremy Pruitt’s first season. The Vols beat #11 Kentucky by 17 points, and scored one of the five biggest Vegas upsets of my lifetime at #21 Auburn. But they didn’t become the dominant memory of 2018 because the Vols failed to earn bowl eligibility, much the same as what happened to Butch Jones’ win over #11 South Carolina in 2013. Finishing 5-7 overall carried more weight than those two wins.
The good news: eight days before kickoff, the bar seems to be holding at realistic goals for a successful year two. And since we really haven’t had what the majority would consider a successful year in this decade, any lasting memories this team makes will have a chance to resonate for a long time.
In its final year, what would you consider the biggest wins of this decade? And how would they compare to the biggest wins of the previous two? Your mileage may vary, but here are my picks:
|1||98 Florida State||01 Florida||16 Florida|
|2||98 Florida||04 Florida||16 Georgia|
|3||95 Alabama||04 Georgia||15 Georgia|
|4||98 Arkansas||07 Kentucky||13 South Carolina|
|5||91 Notre Dame||05 LSU||15 Northwestern|
|6||97 Auburn||03 Alabama||14 South Carolina|
|7||96 Alabama||02 Arkansas||16 Virginia Tech|
|8||90 Florida||03 Miami||14 Iowa|
|9||92 Florida||06 Georgia||18 Auburn|
|10||95 Ohio State||07 Georgia||18 Kentucky|
Fun fact: eight of those ten from the 1990’s came against top ten foes. Even in the 00’s, there’s a stacked honorable mention category (06 Cal, 03 Florida); it would’ve been tough for anything Lane Kiffin did in 2009 to make this list even before he left.
But in this decade, you can get famous in a hurry. For individual drama, I’m not sure the 2019 Vols can do anything to top 2016 Florida and Georgia; I could live a long time and not see anything like either of those games. But for what a win can mean to a season and the narrative of the program? Make a memory this year, and follow through with a successful season?
The 2019 Vols may not be in the championship conversation. But they’ll have their chances to be remembered around here for a long time, and to be the first team in a long time to have the memories they make truly last well. That’s the legacy before Jennings, Callaway, Taylor, Bituli, and Warrior, guys who’ve been here through all of the above. And it’s the opportunity before the younger guys on this team: take a real, meaningful step this year and not only be remembered well, but position yourself to make even bigger memories as you go.
What memories will we make this fall?