This bracket has become an exercise in getting old for me, because I was getting ready to type, "You know the 1995 team, so let me tell you about 1969...", but then I realized seniors in high school this year were born in 1995, and many of our high school/college student readers may have no idea about the '95 Vols.
So we'll get back to those guys in a minute, but first, 1969. This is a season that, if it transpired today in the world of social media and instant communication, would break the internet in East Tennessee. I wasn't born until 1981, and even I was at least vaguely familiar with what happened in '69 before sitting down and looking at the numbers today.
Doug Dickey had been at the helm in Knoxville for six years, winning an SEC Championship and a National Championship designation from one poll in 1967, a team you'll see next week in our bracket. The Vols finished second in the AP poll in '67, 13th in '68, and opened at 15th in '69. The Vols quickly rose thanks to a nationally televised beatdown of #19 Auburn in Knoxville, 45-19 in the second game of the year. Then on the Third Saturday in October, #7 Tennessee went to Birmingham and blasted #20 Alabama 41-14, which will sound real familiar here in just a minute. Two weeks later the Vols went to Athens and beat #11 Georgia 17-3. That put Tennessee at 7-0, ranked third in the land.
And then the Vols went to Jackson, Mississippi to face a quarterback named Archie Manning. It did not go well. Seriously, click that link and read that article from that week's Sports Illustrated. It sucks for us, but it's funny and well-written about the dubious events of "Archie Who?"
The '69 Vols still won out to finish 9-1, SEC Champions. The Vols were sent to the Gator Bowl to face Florida, because apparently back in the day they had no problem with SEC-on-SEC violence in bowl games. Rumors began circulating that Dickey, a Florida alum, would leave Knoxville to fill Florida's coaching vacancy. The Vols lost to Florida 14-13, and then Dickey did just that. Can you imagine if this happened today?
Still, the 1969 team was incredibly talented and is full of names that have stood the test of time in Volunteer lore: Ken DeLong at tight end, Bobby Scott, Curt Watson, and Lester McClain in the backfield, and one of the best linebacking corps in school history, with Jack Reynolds going in the first round of the NFL Draft the following spring and Steve Kiner right behind him. Tim Priest still holds the school record for career interceptions with 18. Nine players from the '69 team were drafted.
1969 - 9-2, SEC Champions, Final AP Rank #15
QB: Bobby Scott
RB: Curt Watson, Lester McClain, Don McLeary
WR: Gary Kreis, Ken DeLong
OL: Steve Robinson, Don Denbo, Mike Bevans, Chip Kell, Joe Balthrop
DL: Vic Dingus, Frank Yanossy, Steve Carroll, James Woody
LB: Jack Reynolds, Steve Kiner, Jackie Walker
DB: Benny Dalton, Mike Jones, Tim Priest, Bill Young
And then there's the '95 squad. After an 8-4 rebuilding year in '94 that saw freshman Peyton Manning eventually win the quarterback battle, the sophomore Manning put together an unbelievable season with just four interceptions all year. The Vols opened the season ranked #8, survived a shootout with Georgia 30-27 in game two, then blew a 30-14 lead in The Swamp as everything came undone in the second half of a 62-37 beatdown. The Gators would finish the regular season undefeated, denying Tennessee a spot in the SEC Championship Game. But the Vols wouldn't lose again either. Tennessee beat #18 Arkansas in Fayetteville 49-31. Then came the magic moment: ending a ten year winless streak against #12 Alabama in Birmingham in a resounding 41-14 victory. When we ranked Phillip Fulmer's 50 Greatest Wins in 2009, this game came in third.
The Vols jumped into the Top 5 with that win and stayed there for the duration, surviving a shootout with Kentucky to win 34-31 in Lexington. Tennessee went to the Citrus Bowl to face Ohio State with both teams tied at #4 in the AP Poll. I continue to believe that Ohio State team is the most talented team the Vols have ever faced...and the Vols won 20-14 in the downpour against Eddie George and the Buckeyes. Tennessee finished 11-1, third in the AP Poll, and second in the coaches' poll.
This team was stacked: Manning was just a sophomre, but he led a dynamic offense thanks to Joey Kent, Marcus Nash, and Jay Graham, as well as a senior-led offensive line. And this became one of the best defenses in school history by the end of the year, for my money...just ask Ohio State. This was John Chavis' first year as defensive coordinator; it started out a disaster in Gainesville, but these Vols were masterful by the time they got to Orlando. These Vols put eight players in the 1996 Draft alone.
1995: 11-1, Final AP Rank #3
QB: Peyton Manning
RB: Jay Graham
WR: Joey Kent, Marcus Nash, Scot Pfeiffer
OL: Jason Layman, Trey Peterson, Jeff Smith, Bubba Miller, Robert Poole
DL: Leonard Little, Shane Burton, Bill Duff, Steve White
LB: Jesse Sanders, Tyrone Hines, Scott Galyon
DB: Terry Fair, DeRon Jenkins, Raymond Austin, Tori Noel