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Tennessee’s Best & Worst Surprises, Revisited

Last summer, we looked at some of Tennessee’s best and worst surprises in the post-Fulmer era. We used UT’s performance relative to expectations: how much did Tennessee over-or-under-perform against the spread?

In the negative department, four of Tennessee’s five worst performances against the spread post-Fulmer came from 2017-2020, and each of those happened in Knoxville. There’s a reason it felt the way it did walking out of the stadium.

So then, we wondered how much a good surprise might be worth to Josh Heupel in year one. And that’s exactly what we got: the Vols went to Missouri at +2.5 on October 2, and won 62-24. That 40.5-point over-performance was the best of the post-Fulmer era, topping Tyler Bray’s coming out party in Knoxville against Ole Miss in 2010 (a 52-14 win at -2.5). And it was indeed no fluke: the Vols over-performed the line by 14.5 points the very next week against South Carolina, and off we went.

I don’t know if the Missouri game is your dominant image from 2021. But historically, it might be the most significant outcome from last fall.

So looking forward to 2022, I celebrated two holidays this weekend: Independence Day, and Phil Steele’s arrival. If you love stats and history, I highly recommend his online access, which includes every team’s performance against the spread going back some 40 years. So I spent some time these past few days digging deeper than just the post-Fulmer era on these questions: what are Tennessee’s best and worst performances against the spread? And how high on those lists do the struggles of 2017-2020 and the unexpected delight of 2021 rank?

I went back as far as 1985, using that SEC Championship season as a benchmark for both my lifespan and our modern conversation. We’ll save the best for last, and look at Tennessee’s best performances against the spread later this week. Today, here’s a look at Tennessee’s worst performances against the spread. Can’t appreciate the good without the context!

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

10. 1993 vs Penn State (Citrus Bowl): favored by 10, lost 31-13

We’ll see more from Heath Shuler’s squad tomorrow, which was so dominant it confused Vegas more than once, then did so again in the finale. This team, still Tennessee’s all-time best in SP+, lost at Florida by seven and tied Alabama in Birmingham. They destroyed everyone else. And then in the bowl game, they took a 10-0 lead…before Penn State closed on a 31-3 run. Ki-Jana Carter ran for 108 of their 209 yards, and the Nittany Lions had their second bowl victory over Tennessee in three years.

9. 1999 Memphis: favored by 30, won 17-16

Beware the orange pants! With everyone expecting bloodshed following the events of the next game on our list, the defending national champion Vols were perhaps still thinking about the loss at Florida the previous week. Tennessee needed a last minute drive to get the win on a very nervous homecoming Saturday. This was my freshman year at UT, and I’m not sure I’ve ever spent more of a game thinking about how bad it would be to lose. But we didn’t!

8. 1996 at Memphis: favored by 26, lost 21-17

Kevin Cobb was down.

6a. 1988 Washington State: favored by 3, lost 52-24

An 0-4 start became 0-5, with Tennessee surrendering more than 600 yards of offense. A Host of Volunteers has a great podcast about the 1988 season, which started 0-6 but ended 5-0, setting the table for Tennessee’s golden era to begin in 1989.

6b. 2017 Georgia: 10-point underdogs, lost 41-0

Tennessee’s run on the national scene from 2015-16 came to a firm halt on this day, dominated by Kirby Smart’s year two Bulldogs in Knoxville.

4a. 1995 Vanderbilt: favored by 32, won 12-7

This line will make more sense when you see what happened in this match-up the previous year. In the 1995 regular season finale, the Vols were ranked fifth, but almost stumbled the week before in Lexington. Against Woody Widenhofer’s year one Commodores, the Vols struggled offensively, but got the job done in a 12-7 victory. (The next two years against Vanderbilt, with some guy named Manning at quarterback: 14-7, 17-10). The Vols struggled into the Citrus Bowl…then beat maybe the most talented team they’ve ever faced from Ohio State.

4b. 2007 at Florida: 7-point underdogs, lost 59-20

An odd game, but not for this rivalry. Florida led 28-13 and was driving for the putaway score in the third quarter, when true freshman Eric Berry picked sophomore Tim Tebow and raced back 96 yards for a score. The Vols got a stop, and got the ball back down 28-20 with five minutes to play in the third quarter. And then, disaster: an Arian Foster fumble was returned for a touchdown, followed by a 99-yard Florida drive, followed by, followed by, followed by. The Gators scored 31 unanswered in the final 20 minutes, giving the Vols their worst margin-of-victory loss of the Fulmer era. Tebow won the Heisman, but the Vols would rebound to win the SEC East.

3. 2019 Georgia State: favored by 24.5, lost 31-23

This game had a chance to play in some real positive history at UT, as the 2019 Vols eventually rebounded from this disaster to finish the year on a six game win streak. The fallout for the Jeremy Pruitt era in 2020 severed that potential chain, leaving this one as one of two notable examples for getting stunned at home by a mid-major, along with…

2. 2008 Wyoming: favored by 27, lost 13-7

The margin of upset is wider here by half a point. But given what was happening at the time, I do think the Georgia State loss hurt more; at this stage in 2008, Fulmer was out, and the team played like it.

1. 2020 Kentucky: favored by 6.5, lost 34-7

Going back through at least 1985, this is Tennessee’s worst performance relative to the spread. The pick sixes in the first half set the tone, and Kentucky’s offense was able to finish things off in the second. The Vols have been blown out by more, for sure, but have never performed so poorly relative to what we thought would happen at kick-off, at least via Vegas standards.

Which is why it’s so amazing to know what they did against Missouri in the opposite direction just one year later. More on that later this week.

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