Tennessee's first step back to contending starts with owning the teams it's supposed to beat
It’s a crying shame that we don’t know we are living in the good times until they are gone. It’s true in love. It’s true in life. And it is certainly true in college football.
There is an entire generation of Tennessee fans growing up right now that has little memory (if any at all) of just how dominant the Vols used to be. And those of us who lived through it felt like it would last forever. Specifically, you had that 45-5 stretch for the Vols from 1996-1999. During those 4 seasons, they won 2 conference championships and a national title. That level of dominance will likely never be seen again on Rocky Top.
Even when the wins don’t come as frequently as the mid/late ’90s, Vols fans could always count on beating up inferior conference opponents.
“They remember what you do in November.” That was the old battle cry around Big Orange Country. Their traditional late-season push would propel the Volunteers into a better bowl game. It didn’t hurt that the final month of the season was typically a schedule of conference also-rans and Homecoming opponents looking for a paycheck.
Vanderbilt and Kentucky didn’t strike fear into the hearts of Vols fans or players. During the Phillip Fulmer era (1993-2008), the Vols went 31-1 against those teams when he was in charge. Fulmer never lost to Kentucky. He lost to Vanderbilt once, in 2005, when the Vols went 5-6 and Vanderbilt had Jay Cutler playing quarterback (he was picked 11th overall in the NFL Draft the following spring).
You could count on a Fulmer team to win those games as sure as you could count on as JP Sports having an announcer named Dave.
Those weren’t the only teams the Vols beat at will. When South Carolina came into the SEC in 1992, they upset the Vols 24-23. That loss led to the firing of Johnny Majors. Then Fulmer’s Vols rattled off 12 consecutive wins before losing again.
Tennessee has a better tradition, better facilities, better recruiting … there’s no reason why they should struggle against the Commodores, Wildcats and Gamecocks of the college football world.
But in recent years, those 3 teams have been a thorn in Tennessee’s side.
Starting with 2012, the Vols are a depressing 2-5 against Vanderbilt, including 3 consecutive losses. They are just 4-6 in the past 10 games against South Carolina (though UT did snap its 3-game losing streak a couple of weeks ago). Yes, the Vols are 6-1 against Kentucky following the 2011 debacle when a converted wide receiver playing quarterback named Matt Roark helped UK snap a 26-game losing streak. But if the past decade of dysfunction on “The Hill” has proven anything, it is that nothing is guaranteed anymore when it comes to Tennessee football.
If Tennessee wants to get back to competing for SEC East titles (and the Vols haven’t won one in 12 years), they need to win the games they should be winning. Not some of the time, but just about all of the time.
The 2016 season is a perfect example of how losses to seemingly inferior opponents can produce disastrous results.
Tennessee was in 2nd place in the SEC East at 2-2 in conference play after playing 4 consecutive ranked opponents, but their easiest games were ahead of them. They also owned the tiebreaker over division leader Florida. The Vols knew that if they won out, they likely would win the East and play for the SEC title. Following a bye week, they were a 2-touchdown favorite heading to Columbia to face South Carolina. Tennessee was banged up, but should have been able to handle a floundering Gamecocks team. Instead, the Vols played one of their worst games to that point under Butch Jones and lost 24-21.
South Carolina finished the season 6-6. Not good. Not bad. Just mediocre. Tennessee shouldn’t have lost to such a mediocre team, but they did. Florida only lost 1 more SEC game the rest of the way and won the division.
Tennessee still had a wonderful consolation prize waiting for their fans. Beat lowly Vanderbilt on the final day of the regular season, and they’d likely earn a Sugar Bowl bid. The Vols would have ended a quarter-century wait to play in New Orleans. Vandy’s stadium was filled with orange in what was basically a Tennessee home game. But Tennessee gave up over 600 yards of offense to the Commodores and lost 45-34.
Vanderbilt would finish 6-6. Not good. Not bad. Just mediocre. Tennessee shouldn’t have lost to such a mediocre team, but they did. The Vols would settle for a trip to the Music City Bowl.
That was the closest the Vols have come to a division title or a major bowl game appearance since 2007. Losses to the teams on their schedule that they should have beaten did them in.
There is little margin for error in this conference.
Tennessee obviously isn’t in title contention this season, but the first step, again, is beating teams like Kentucky on Saturday and Vanderbilt to close the season. Win both, and the Vols can sneak into a bowl game and start to build some momentum.
Until Tennessee starts dominating that level of opponent again, getting back to the upper echelon of the SEC will remain out of reach.