Updating Context for Vols vs #1

Here’s the same question in a different week: in a 12-team playoff, Saturday’s game would (still) mean even more.

It wouldn’t necessarily mean entirely less if you’re #1 Georgia; the Dawgs will likely need to go through Alabama either way. Losses in Knoxville and Atlanta would mean missing it all this year; losses in those two games next year might put Georgia on the road in the first round, etc.

But for #18 Tennessee and the quest for meaningful football – for being in the national conversation – this game would be not just an opportunity to beat number one, but play yourself back into fringe playoff talk.

“How can you say that after the way we lost to Missouri? We can’t seriously entertain beating Georgia now!”

Thanks for asking!

Saturday will be the 25th time the Vols play a Top 5 opponent in the post-Fulmer era, and the 12th time that opponent is ranked number one. As of Wednesday morning the Vols are +10.5 against Georgia.

It’s easy to forget because we won one of them and were ranked number one in the other, but that’s almost exactly where the Vols were when they played Alabama and Georgia last year, closing at +9.5 in both of those games.

And other than those two, +10.5 this week is as close as the Vols have been against the Top 5 in the post-Fulmer era (data via Phil Steele & covers.com).

Tennessee vs Top 5, 2009-2023

YearOpponentAP RankLineOutcome
2022Georgia19.5L 27-14
2022Alabama39.5W 52-49
2020Georgia312L 44-21
2020Texas A&M513L 34-13
2016Alabama113L 49-10
2012Georgia514L 51-44
2009Alabama114L 12-10
2014Ole Miss316L 34-13
2011LSU117L 38-7
2021Georgia119L 41-17
2014Alabama419L 34-20
2014Oklahoma420L 34-10
2012Alabama120L 44-13
2020Alabama221L 48-17
2019Georgia324L 43-14
2021Alabama424.5L 52-24
2013Oregon228L 59-14
2013Alabama128L 45-10
2018Alabama129L 58-21
2011Alabama229L 37-6
2018Georgia230L 38-12
2009Florida130L 23-13
2019Alabama134L 35-13
2017Alabama136L 45-7

Even after the 36-7 loss at Missouri, these Vols have better odds against an elite team than any of their recent predecessors other than last season.

These wins are, by nature, very hard to come by. I use the Top 25 era a lot (1989-present), in part because it coincides with my own memories. In these 35 seasons, the Vols have ten Top 5 wins:

Tennessee Wins vs Top 5 in the Top 25 era (1989-present)

  • 2022 vs #3 Alabama, 52-49
  • 2005 at #3 LSU, 30-27 (OT)
  • 2004 at #3 Georgia, 19-14
  • 2001 at #2 Florida, 34-32
  • 1998 vs #2 Florida, 20-17 (OT)
  • 1998 vs #2 Florida State, 23-16
  • 1995 vs #4 Ohio State, 20-14
  • 1992 vs #4 Florida, 31-14
  • 1991 at #5 Notre Dame, 35-34
  • 1989 vs #4 Auburn, 21-14

In these past 35 seasons, the Vols have played a Top 5 opponent 53 times. They’ve been favored just three times…and lost all three:

  • 1990 vs #1 Notre Dame in Knoxville with the Vols ranked #9, one of the best football games I’ve ever seen. Tennessee was -3 and lost 34-29 on an interception in the end zone.
  • 1996 vs #4 Florida in front of a record-breaking NCAA crowd. The Gators scored the game’s first 35 points before a Tennessee comeback fell short 35-29; Tennessee was -3.
  • 2005 vs #5 Georgia, two weeks after The Rally at Death Valley. With the quarterback situation still unresolved, the Dawgs won 27-14 with Tennessee at -3.

Wins against this level of competition are rare and almost never predictable. But this Tennessee team, even after last week, has a better opportunity than we’re used to seeing around here in the last 15 years. It could still mean everything a year from now. And it would absolutely define this season in the present.

I’m excited to see what we’ll do with it.

Go Vols.

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