Where 2018 Ranks in the Last 50 Years of Tennessee Football

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We use S&P+ during football season (and KenPom for basketball) a lot on our site. Part of it comes from the 10+ years we spent at SB Nation, where Bill Connelly continues to do great work with advanced statistics. And specific to Tennessee, the longer the Vols struggle, the more I believe it’s important to find good ways to distinguish what’s happening year to year.

S&P+ isn’t the best way to rank teams; I still work for the head-to-head police, still believe Penn State should’ve been in over Ohio State two years ago, etc. But S&P+ is one of the best ways to rate teams. It doesn’t judge wins and losses, but places a value on every play, adjusted for each opponent. You can read all about what goes into it here, but in general it includes five factors:

  • Success Rate (staying on schedule with five yards on first down, 70% of what’s left on second down, and converting third/fourth downs).
  • Points Per Play
  • Scoring Opportunities (what you did inside the 40), Field Position, and Turnover Margin

Not only does S&P+ assign value to every snap, it gives a percentile performance for each game and, ultimately, the season. It’s a good way to distinguish between seasons that finish with similar records, and track a coach and program over time.

Football Outsiders has S&P+ data going back to 2005, including offensive and defensive unit rankings. But a couple off-seasons ago, Bill Connelly published an estimated S&P+ rating for teams as far back as 1970 (all of those links can be found here from Football Study Hall).

We pointed out at the time how S&P+ didn’t rate 1998 as Tennessee’s best team of the 90’s, but instead leaned toward Heath Shuler’s 1993 squad. The ’98 Vols won five one-possession games, plus a fourth quarter comeback in the SEC Championship Game. The ’93 Vols lost to Florida by seven and tied Alabama before ultimately stumbling in the Citrus Bowl against Penn State. But they also decimated everyone else, including a 32-point win over #22 Georgia and 35 points over #13 Louisville. Shuler finished second in the Heisman balloting and the team set a school record for points per game that still stands.

Again, it’s not the best way to rank seasons – ’93 in particular struggles in that department because it lacks a signature win – but it is a good way to ask yourself, “Who would we least like to face?” And the 50 years (okay, 49) of estimated percentile performance give us a ton of context for where Tennessee was, is, and could go.

So, using the data from Football Study Hall, here’s every Tennessee team since 1970 in S&P+, from best to worst:

TeamS&P+ PercentileRecord

The first data point is the highest: the 1970 Vols lost to #17 Auburn in week two, but didn’t fall again. They beat #13 Georgia Tech 17-6, then beat Alabama 24-0 and Florida 38-7 in consecutive weeks. LSU lost a pair of non-conference games in 1970 but went undefeated in the SEC; as the Vols and Tigers did not meet, #5 LSU won the SEC and got a shot at #3 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, with an outside chance at the national championship. The #4 Vols went to the Sugar Bowl and beat #11 Air Force 34-13. The Cornhuskers beat LSU to claim the national championship when #1 Texas and #2 Ohio State both lost their bowl games; had the Vols played Nebraska instead they too would’ve been playing for the title.

Shuler’s ’93 Vols are second on the list, meaning the two highest-rated teams of the last 50 years both had first-year coaches in Bill Battle and Phillip Fulmer. From there, it’s the list you expect: the most memorable seasons from the decade of dominance, Condredge Holloway’s 1972 Vols, and the 1985 Sugar Vols.

Here’s what it looks like over time:

And here’s the Google Sheet where you can interact with the data.

So…what can we learn here?

The Last Two Years Really Have Been Rock Bottom

In S&P+, the 2017 season is the worst of the last 50 years by a significant margin. The Vols went 4-8, but it was more than that. The Vols were statistically dominated in the win over Georgia Tech. And UT was both non-competitive in five blowout losses, and failed to measure up play-for-play in close losses to Florida, South Carolina, and Kentucky. The S&P+ win expectancy in those three games: 19%, 23%, and 33%, plus just 23% against Georgia Tech.

Only 1981 kept 2018 from making it back-to-back years at the bottom of S&P+. The ’81 Vols are an interesting example of how S&P+ works: Tennessee went 8-4, but the four losses were by 44 to Georgia, 36 to USC, 19 to Alabama, and 11 to Kentucky. Meanwhile the Vols beat Auburn and Georgia Tech by identical 10-7 scores, beat Vanderbilt by four, and survived Wichita State 24-21. Play-for-play, the ’81 Vols were really bad…but they found a way to win every close game. And that team, and the ones to follow, help teach us a good lesson.

The Early 80’s as a Guide?

The records didn’t show straight-line improvement for Johnny Majors from 1981-84: 8-4, 6-5-1, 9-3, 7-4-1. But in S&P+, the Vols were getting stronger every year, laying the groundwork for the SEC title in 1985.

The 2018 Vols are third-worst in S&P+ in the last 50 years…but they were significantly better than their predecessors. It’s easy to make things pass/fail: if the Vols had beaten South Carolina, Missouri, or Vanderbilt to get bowl eligible at 6-6, it would’ve seemed a lot easier to praise Jeremy Pruitt for his year one work. But play-for-play, Tennessee made progress.

You always start with wins and losses, and in the end, you circle back there. But in between, it’s worth valuing every play. And while there’s a long way to go back to the top, Tennessee took a solid first step away from the bottom in 2018.

The Ups and Downs of Any Program

S&P+ puts 2006 and 2007 in a different light too. After an abundance of close wins in 2003 and 2004 (and close losses in 2005), the Vols were far closer to their 90’s neighbors in 2006: one-point loss to the eventual champs, four-point loss to Top 10 LSU, and significant blowouts of Cal and Georgia. The Vols got blown out three times in 2007, but the weight of the ongoing Fulmer conversation probably made us undervalue Tennessee blowing out Georgia and Arkansas in return.

2008 was still the worst year of the Fulmer era; the last ten years may have changed your mind, but in the moment there were certainly reasonable arguments for moving on in wins and losses. But play-for-play, the Vols weren’t far away in the two years before Fulmer was out, and nearly returned to the same form with Fulmer’s players in Lane Kiffin’s one and only year.

Since then, things have trended downhill in a hurry. Even what some may think of as the good Butch Jones years – 2014-2016 – were, both play-for-play and in the end result, several steps behind Tennessee’s best days.

I’m not sure it’s realistic to make the 90’s the definition of success; in the last 50 years that’s the ceiling, but not always where we live. Since 1970 the Vols are better understood as a program capable of hitting those high notes – and its current athletic director hired a coach with that possibility in mind – but also one that has its ups and downs, and is currently in the middle of a historic down. Progress, for Fulmer and Pruitt, looks first like getting the Vols above the thresholds Dooley and Butch reached but could not surpass. At this point, in these ratings, it’s still a steeper climb than either of them faced. But looking for said progress is part of the fun. It’ll always be easier when the Vols are winning close games instead of losing them. But so far for Jeremy Pruitt, progress is there.

Any program is a roller coaster over the course of 50 years. We come back every fall because we love the ride itself, not just the wins. History suggests we’ve never been as low as in the last two years…but history also shows the heights this program can attain. And we’re in the middle of a basketball season showing us you can always go higher.

For the Vols, and for Pruitt, right now it’s simply about going forward.

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Joel Hollingsworth
Joel Hollingsworth
1 year ago

This is excellent. Let’s hope the comparison of the ’80-’81 trend to the ’17-’18 trend continues this year. I was a fan of other things in the 80s, so I have to ask: How was the mood after the ’81 season?

1 year ago

I have to imagine Johnny Majors had an unusually capacious leash, even for the time, being both a former Tennessee star and bearer of a national championship at Pitt? I wasn’t around, though.

1 year ago

Interesting statistics and picture. I was in the stands as a student beginning in ’69 and saw them play Air Force in the Sugar Bowl… those were fun years. Definitely on the upswing with Butch Jones after the Dooley fiasco… but then fell off a cliff when Jones basically lost the Team. For all that we talk about the recent “bottom”, it looks like there was actually more variability in the 70’s/80’s. Nice job Will. Thanks for doing the analysis.

Gavin Driskill
Gavin Driskill
1 year ago

It’s fascinating that 2009 is the high water mark of the post-championship era.

I suppose it kind of makes sense…4-point loss to UCLA, 10-point loss to Florida, 4-point loss to Auburn, 2-point loss to eventual champ Bama, sizeable win over Georgia.

I’m just not sure that’s where my mind would’ve immediately gone.

Gavin Driskill
Gavin Driskill
1 year ago
Reply to  Will Shelton

That’s wild.

It’s almost like Lane Kiffin knows how to coach an offense and Eric Berry was really good.