Some years you get pretty good clarity on who the best team is, and last night will certainly qualify for Georgia. As back-to-back champs, it has essentially always been them this season. I always try to view these things through the eyes of, “What helps Tennessee most?” – the Dawgs looking dominant does help put November 5 in Athens in better context. It also will create an entirely new rhythm in 2023 on our schedule, one final shift before it all begins anew in 2024: Georgia comes to Neyland Stadium in the next-to-last week of the regular season this fall. If the Dawgs stay on track as the team to beat, we’ll see what the Vols can do with that opportunity at the finish line.
Tennessee finishes sixth in the AP poll, one spot and nine votes behind Alabama. The head-to-head police are already out with warrants. But it would be equally silly for us to spend any time feeling somehow lesser than about this magical year because of the nonsense of a handful of voters. There is much still to celebrate.
In the post-Fulmer era, the Vols had just six wins over teams who finished the season ranked in 12 years from 2009-2020:
- 2011 #25 Cincinnati
- 2013 #4 South Carolina
- 2015 #23 Northwestern
- 2016 #14 Florida
- 2016 #16 Virginia Tech
- 2018 #12 Kentucky
Josh Heupel’s first team added #18 Kentucky to the list in 2021.
We already knew these Vols tied 1998 with six wins over ranked teams during the season. Sometimes that stat gets mocked – lol Kentucky wasn’t really a big win – but I always think that misses the point. All those years without many ranked wins helped teach us a central truth of sports (and probably life): don’t miss opportunities to celebrate. Ranked wins matter most on the Saturday they happen, when they are also most enjoyable. When the Vols beat Florida, none of us thought to ourselves, “Well, hold on, let’s see how they finish the season.”
Now that we have seen how they all finished the season?
Six wins over teams who finished the year ranked from 2009-20. One more last year.
And four in 2022.
That puts this team in company with, you guessed it: 1997, 1998, and 2001. Since the AP poll went to 25 teams in 1989, those are the only Vol squads to beat at least four teams who finished the season ranked:
- 1997: #5 UCLA, #10 Georgia, #11 Auburn, #22 Ole Miss
- 1998: #3 Florida State, #5 Florida, #14 Georgia, #16 Arkansas, #25 Syracuse
- 2001: #3 Florida, #7 LSU, #13 South Carolina, #14 Syracuse, #20 Michigan
- 2022: #5 Alabama, #13 Clemson, #16 LSU, #22 Pittsburgh
Alabama’s erroneous finish in the top five does give Tennessee its eighth win over a final top five team in that same span:
- 2007 #2 Georgia
- 1998 #3 Florida State
- 2001 #3 Florida
- 2013 #4 South Carolina
- 1997 #5 UCLA
- 1998 #5 Florida
- 2003 #5 Miami
- 2022 #5 Alabama
I love the hypothetical history questions like, “Who’s the best team Tennessee has ever beaten?” In the Top 25 era, I think I’m going with 2001 Florida on this list; our story at Rocky Top Talk from 2016 also placed them atop the list using SP+. The 2022 Alabama squad wasn’t necessarily in the championship chase in December like those Gators and Vols. But they were, of course, two plays away from an undefeated season. And going back and watching our game – as I’m sure you’ll continue to do many times – you marvel at Bryce Young’s performance.
If you’re ranking the best teams you’ve ever seen us beat? The 2022 Alabama team is on that list. And this team also got three other ranked foes.
By any definition, it was an incredible year for Tennessee. The Vols would’ve been in a 12-team playoff. And in all the way-too-earlies you’ll come across today, you’ll find the 2023 squad projected to be right back in that hypothetical conversation.
That’s the greatest gift of this team. And they did it so well, especially at the end against Clemson, they made you believe they can do it again.