The Value of 2022: Ranking the Ranked

There was this nice string of days last week that went Vols in Omaha –> Julian Phillips in the NBA Draft –> Phil Steele arrives in my mailbox. Because the joyful weight of an #everythingschool is felt most on the calendar. This is June 29, and it’s time to talk about football. In a number of seasons past, that conversation started somewhere before March 29.

So here’s something else we’re going to have to get used to: I want to talk about 2023, but I’m not entirely sure we’re done having fun talking about 2022.

A couple of weeks ago, Bill Connelly released a version of his historical SP+ data based on points scored and points allowed, using it in re-ranking the best teams of each decade. It’s simplified from the week-to-week ratings we look at often each fall, but still informative, especially in comparing one season to the next. Not all 8-4s are created equal. As it turns out, not all 11-2s are either: the 2022 Vols rank third all-time at Tennessee.

Those of us who were around for the 90s (or 1970, still the all-time SP+ king of Knoxville) will shrug off this suggestion initially I’m sure; I did too. Last year was amazing, but whoa whoa on calling it the third-best in school history and all that. When we looked at a version of this data seven years ago at Rocky Top Talk, we found an example I’ve cited frequently since then: Tennessee’s highest-rated team of the 90s in SP+ wasn’t the national champs or one led by Peyton Manning. It was Heath Shuler’s 1993 squad. They’re still second overall in the updated rankings today, one spot ahead of 2022. That group tied #2 Alabama and lost a 41-34 shootout at #9 Florida. But in the regular season, they hot-knife-through-buttered absolutely everyone else.

So maybe think of it this way: play-for-play, Saturday-for-Saturday, who would the opponent least like to see running through the T? That ’93 squad, with Shuler the Heisman runner-up, is definitely on that list.

That’s now 30 years ago, maybe too far away for a clean comparison. And we’re still too close to last fall, too tied up in the giddiness of our feelings of what Tennessee Football won back. Maybe SP+ is your jam, maybe it’s not. But how else might we quantify last fall’s success, and corroborate the incredible leap we find in those ratings?

Consider this: the AP Poll went to 25 teams in 1989. Since then, only seven Tennessee teams beat multiple ranked foes by 3+ possessions (17+ points).

By my count, the Vols did it five times in the 1990s:

  • 1993: #22 Georgia 38-6 & #13 Louisville 45-10
  • 1994: #24 Georgia 41-23 & #17 Virginia Tech 45-23
  • 1995: #18 Arkansas 49-31 & #12 Alabama 41-14
  • 1997: #13 Georgia 38-13 & #20 Southern Miss 44-20
  • 1999: #10 Georgia 37-20 & #24 Notre Dame 38-14

Before last year, Tennessee most recently accomplished this feat in 2006. And that group probably has the best one-two punch: #9 California in the opener 35-18, #10 Georgia on the road 51-33. (Shout out to the 1985 SugarVols, before the Top 25 era, who smashed #1 Auburn 38-20 and #2 Miami 35-7. That’s pretty good.)

But last year, the 2022 Vols became the only Tennessee team of the Top 25 era to beat three ranked teams by at least three possessions:

  • #25 LSU 40-13
  • #19 Kentucky 44-6
  • #7 Clemson 31-14

Some like to nitpick the value of wins using a team’s ranking the week of the game, and I get that, to some degree, at the end of the year. I think it’s foolish to discount that in the moment, however: beating a ranked team is a significant percentage of the why behind the fun. And while Kentucky may have finished just 7-6, LSU was plenty good as SEC West champs; Clemson was the season finale.

Also, as you may recall, we beat Bama; I don’t think the 2022 team is in extreme danger of being overvalued.

Whatever your thoughts on SP+ and 2022’s ranking all-time at UT – which, pun intended, isn’t always oranges to oranges – we continue to find ways to say that what happened last fall wasn’t just being back, but being present. That group last year was in the championship conversation. They got there by beating more ranked teams by more points than any Tennessee team we’ve seen come before.

And that continues to make me believe Tennessee will make themselves right at home in that conversation going forward.

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