In the moment, our favorite stories of the last decade all happened in the first five weeks of the 2016 season. There’s else nothing in the last ten years that even remotely compares to the spectacle of Bristol, the streak against Florida, and the final snap in Athens. If you can live with a little discomfort, throw in the near-miss against Appalachian State and the insanity of the Texas A&M game, and you’ll be hard pressed to find more adrenaline in a six week span in Tennessee’s entire canon. As we were fond of saying at the time, falling behind 14-0 in front of the largest crowd in football history was only the fifth-most-stressful thing to happen to Tennessee in its first six games.
In the moment, those three wins, in any order, are the decade’s peak. But in what became too common a theme under Butch Jones, signature wins never led to signature seasons. And those great moments – particularly in the first half of 2016 – were left with an unfortunate aftertaste of, “Yeah, but…”. In the moment, there was nothing better in the last ten years. But when ranking the ultimate importance of those moments in the last ten years, the first half of 2016 only comes in at number five in our countdown.
That disconnect makes those three games more isolated memories than pieces of a whole. If we did take them together, I’d put them on a short list of seasons in my lifetime with a trio of wins as memorable:
- 1989: The program’s sudden turnaround against #6 UCLA and #4 Auburn in September, plus the Cotton Bowl over #10 Arkansas to finish an 11-1 campaign.
- 1995: Peyton Manning’s first huge game at #18 Arkansas, the streak-buster at #12 Alabama the very next week, and the Citrus Bowl over #4 Ohio State.
- 1998: Plenty to choose from, but we could do this forever and not find three more memorable days in one season than Florida, Arkansas, and Florida State.
- 2001: The win over #14 LSU after 9/11, the high-stakes win in Gainesville in December, and the palate-cleanser against #17 Michigan in the Citrus Bowl.
- 2003: The road warriors: a second straight win in Gainesville, five overtimes in Tuscaloosa, and busting #6 Miami’s 26-game home winning streak.
- 2004: James Wilhoit against Florida, a huge upset at #4 Georgia, and a 38-7 beat down of #22 Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl
You’re going to take 1998 first on that list, but after that? The Battle at Bristol, the comeback against Florida, and the hail mary at Georgia will stand up to any of those years.
On the other end of this spectrum are years like 2019. I’d argue there’s not a signature win from last year, in part because I’m not sure we can agree on what the best win was. The Vols didn’t beat a ranked team or a traditional rival. Is it the second-half surge against South Carolina? The goal line stand at Kentucky? Three receivers with more than 100 yards at Missouri? The Gator Bowl comeback?
And yet, the whole of the 2019 season left us more satisfied than the whole of the 2016 season. Sometimes the schedule simply doesn’t afford you as many chances to make memories; we make this point about Heath Shuler’s 1993 team often. That group is Tennessee’s highest-rated team of the 90’s in SP+, but was more known for a tie and a shootout loss than beating #22 Georgia and #13 Louisville by a combined score of 83-16.
When the Vols finally do marry signature wins and a signature season for the first time since 2007, I think we’ll be able to look back on those three games from 2016 far more fondly. Until then, they’re the most recent reminder of what could have been. And they deserve to be much more than that.
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