Something I find myself saying a lot – and will continue to do so joyfully – is that the 2022 team is best understood not just in how they left the wilderness, but that they found the promised land. It wasn’t just the first time in 15 years the Vols had a successful season by any definition. It was that, outside of 1998? What the 2022 Vols did stacks up against any other season you want in the modern era.
In my lifetime, I’d put them on the list with 1985, 1989, 1995, 1997, 1998, and 2001 as the Tennessee teams that came the closest to the mountaintop (you can add the 1990 SEC Champions if you want; more on them in a second). Those six seasons, along with 2022, featured landmark victories and the real belief that the Vols could be the best team in the country at various points along the way.
So…what do you do for an encore?
Here’s what happened the year after those years:
1985 (SEC Champions) to 1986
- 1985 Final Poll: 4
- 1986 Preseason: 10
- 1986 Final Poll: NR
The ’85 SugarVols cashed in on the promise of Johnny Majors and routed #2 Miami in New Orleans as their final act. They were the first Vol squad to finish a season ranked in 11 years, first in the Top 5 in 15 years.
In 1986, Tennessee went 0-3 in one possession games in the regular season, with each of those losses coming in September and October. The Vols lost to Mississippi State by four, Georgia Tech by one, and Army by five. They were also blown out by #2 Alabama and #8 Auburn.
But Tennessee did rebound down the stretch, winning their final five games including the Liberty Bowl over Minnesota. They carried that momentum into 1987, when they’d finish 10-2-1 and ranked 17th.
1989 (SEC Champions) to 1990
- 1989 Final Poll: 5
- 1990 Preseason: 8
- 1990 Final Poll: 8
Maybe the wildest of all seasons in Knoxville, the ’90 Vols went 9-2-2 and won their second consecutive SEC title. They tied a pair of Top 5 teams in Colorado and Auburn. They lost a heartbreaker to #1 Notre Dame, then won a thriller against former #1 Virginia in the Sugar Bowl. They blew out Steve Spurrier and #9 Florida 45-3, then suffered what I still think is the second-hardest loss of my lifetime to unranked Alabama 9-6. In the end, they finished right where they started: eighth in the polls, and SEC Champions once again. I don’t have them with this group of six teams because they played four games they didn’t win. But on sheer entertainment, this group is hard to beat.
1995 (#3 Final Poll) to 1996
- 1995 Final Poll: 3
- 1996 Preseason: 2
- 1996 Final Poll: 9
The only one of these teams to start the year higher than their predecessors finished it. Peyton Manning’s junior year saw the Vols give up 35 straight points to Florida in Knoxville at the start of the game before scoring the next 29 to almost come back. This team was still on track for a huge year, but lost at Memphis for the first (and only) time in program history. That sent the Vols back to Orlando, where blowing out Northwestern wasn’t quite the same as the showdown with #4 Ohio State that capped off the previous year.
1997 (SEC Champions, Bowl Alliance) to 1998
- 1997 Final Poll: 7
- 1998 Preseason: 10
- 1998 Final Poll: 1
The Vols were ranked third in the next-to-last AP poll of 1997 before getting blown away by #2 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, a game that would’ve been for the national title if Michigan had lost the day before. Manning and his cohort left for the NFL. Fun fact: 10th was the lowest the Vols had been ranked in the preseason poll in four years.
It mattered little: this bunch finally beat Florida and ran the table, winning the national championship.
1998 (National Champions) to 1999
- 1998 Final Poll: 1
- 1999 Preseason: 2
- 1999 Final Poll: 9
And a lot of those dudes were back the next year. The Vols gave up five sacks to Alex Brown in The Swamp, but were still ranked second in the BCS on November 8. Alas: Clint Stoerner got his revenge, with Arkansas knocking the Vols out of the national championship conversation. Nebraska beat them in the Fiesta Bowl for a 9-3 finish.
2001 (Opportunity to play for BCS title) to 2002
- 2001 Final Poll: 4
- 2002 Preseason: 5
- 2002 Final Poll: NR
Man, that sentence about 2001 does indeed hurt a little less, at least to me, when you just beat Nick Saban.
Injuries and weirdness struck in 2002, the first truly disappointing season in Knoxville in almost 15 years. The Vols fumbled 134581740 times in the rain against Florida, the first of five losses, all to Top 20 opponents. Casey Clausen missed time after Tennessee’s six overtime win against Arkansas, the Vols caught the Miami superpower on the schedule, etc. A Peach Bowl blowout loss to Maryland put the stamp on a frustrating season, but Tennessee won 10 games each of the next two years.
So…what did we learn?
- All six of these teams started in the Top 10 in preseason. The 2023 Vols are 10th in 247’s consensus Top 25 from late March. Other than the 2016 Vols, who opened the year at #9, Tennessee hasn’t landed in the Top 20 of a preseason poll since 2008.
- Only the 1998 Vols finished higher than their predecessors. It’s hard to do when those are your predecessors! If you asked fans right now to take the over/under on finishing 6th in the final poll of 2023? Our spring expected win total of 8.65 regular season victories suggests an understanding that improving on last year isn’t necessarily at the top of our wish list.
- Two of these teams finished unranked, but the other four all finished in the Top 10. That’s program building, and it’s an interesting question for Josh Heupel in year three. The two groups that finished unranked were 1986 and 2002, coming before and after Tennessee’s “decade” of dominance from 1989-2001. So even though seasons like 1996 and 1999 may have had their disappointments, they still ended in the Top 10, and the Vols were still in the promised land, so to speak.
Where will the 2023 Vols start and finish? And can they show the program-building strength that can carry Tennessee into the College Football Playoff conversation every year?
Great recap. Still love having the 98 National Championship in my lifetime to enjoy and remember. Is it okay to wish every QB that we play this year have an average or less game performance for once :)?