Tennessee’s 10 Best Performances vs Expectations

Earlier this week, we revisited our list from last summer of Tennessee’s best and worst surprises. Using data from Phil Steele’s all access online, we tracked the Vols against the spread going all the way back to 1985, looking for the games they most over-and-under-performed. On Tuesday, we did the ten worst. Today: the fun part.

Tennessee’s 10 Best Performances Against the Spread, 1985-Present

9a. 1993 South Carolina: favored by 20, won 55-3

9b. 1993 at Kentucky: favored by 16, won 48-0

Heath Shuler’s Vols were not to be trifled with. In the Steve Tanneyhill revenge game, Charlie Garner had a 60-yard touchdown run on the second play of the game, and the Vols never looked back. The ’93 Kentucky squad made the Peach Bowl, the Cats’ first postseason appearance in nine years. Tennessee destroyed them 48-0. Again, this team is the program’s high-water mark in SP+ in the last five decades for a reason.

8. 1989 at UCLA: 15-point underdogs, won 24-6

The genesis of Tennessee’s “decade” of dominance from 1989-2001. In week two, the Bruins were ranked sixth and hosted the Vols on a late night in Pasadena. UCLA went for it on 4th-and-1 at the UT 37 on their opening drive, and the defense held. From there, the Vols introduced the world to freshman tailback Chuck Webb: 134 yards and two scores, plus 78 more from Reggie Cobb. The program was off and running, en route to back-to-back SEC titles in 1989-90, and more to come. Read more from the LA Times.

6a. 1985 vs Miami (Sugar Bowl): 7-point underdogs, won 35-7

One of the most famous nights in the history of Tennessee football. I was four years old, so I carry no memories from the game itself, but spent much of the next four years being shown the highlights on that old SugarVols VHS tape, before the ’89 team made its own memories.

6b. 2004 vs Texas A&M (Cotton Bowl): 4-point underdogs, won 38-7

Tennessee was the higher-ranked team, but the Vols were down to third-string quarterback Rick Clausen. No matter: he went 18-of-27 for 222 yards with three touchdowns, and the Vol defense ambushed the Aggies in forcing five turnovers. This capped a 10-3 season, still the last time the Vols lost fewer than four games in a year.

5. 2010 Ole Miss: favored by 2.5, won 52-14

Tyler Bray’s coming out party in Knoxville. When we first looked at this list last summer, we noted this game as the high-water mark against the spread in the post-Fulmer era, and talked about the power of a team finding its quarterback. There are no guarantees, of course: Bray’s revelation at the end of his freshman year led to an injury as a sophomore and a bunch of high-scoring losses as a junior. But that late span created real momentum for the program going forward, something Hendon Hooker knows a thing or two about…

3a. 1985 at Kentucky: favored by 4, won 42-0

As good as the Sugar Bowl romp over #2 Miami was, the ’85 Vols were even better relative to expectations in the Bluegrass that year. When Tony Robinson went down to injury and was replaced at quarterback by Daryl Dickey, the Vols took some time to restart the offense. They tied Georgia Tech 6-6 and only scored 17 points in a win at Memphis State. Kentucky came into this one playing for bowl eligibility, and beat the Vols in Knoxville the year before. Not this time: the 42-0 shutout moved the Vols into the Top 10.

3b. 1990 Florida: favored by 4, won 45-3

Here’s the high-water mark in Neyland Stadium. Up 7-3 at halftime, Dale Carter took the second half kickoff to the house, and engaged the floodgates. The Vols routed Steve Spurrier’s Gators in a Top 10 clash, making this the benchmark for blowouts in both rivalry and elite competition categories. This is the fourth appearance for a Johnny Majors team in this Top 10.

2. 2021 at Missouri: 2.5-point underdogs, won 62-24

Maybe the Missouri game isn’t your dominant image from last fall; the win over South Carolina was in Knoxville, and it felt like we were beating a better team in the moment. The win at Kentucky was a ranked dub in a close game. But historically speaking, this one is incredibly significant. Going back to at least 1985, we’ve only seen one game where the Vols over-performed expectations via Vegas better than this. And for a Tennessee program that just saw its worst performance relative to expectation the previous season? There was credibility earned here on a level that we hadn’t experienced from a year one coach, a delightful surprise that we might look back on as a tone-setter for something more. From last fall: Announce My Presence With Authority.

1. 1994 at Vanderbilt: favored by 12, won 65-0

The largest margin of victory via shutout in modern UT history. Total yards: Tennessee 655, Vanderbilt 212. The Commodores came into this one 5-5 and looking for bowl eligibility. Instead, they got this. Freshman Peyton Manning was hitting his stride, but this day was as much about the talent gap as anything. Overperforming the spread by 53 points, this is far and away Tennessee’s best performance relative to expectation at kickoff since at least 1985.

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