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The Most Underachieving Tennessee Football Teams

We begin our week-long look at the last 25 years in Knoxville in underachievers, overachievers, and just right.


With the NFL Draft approaching next week, you'll hear lots of words from Knoxville about Tennessee's strong tradition of sending players to the big leagues.  After having just two players drafted in the fourth and fifth rounds in 2011 and only Malik Jackson in round five in 2012, last year the Vols took a step back to normal with Cordarrelle Patterson going in round one and three others following close behind.  Though the Vols probably won't get a first round selection this year, a slew of offensive linemen and a side of Rajion Neal and Daniel McCullers should give Tennessee another 4-6 names on the board.

You can look at those numbers and figure out the talent base is slowly returning to Knoxville.  However, it's interesting to track those numbers over time and see the ebb and flow of talent at Tennessee.  At RTT we love our history this time of year and it's always a fun conversation to discuss which Vol teams were the best...and the worst.  While there are plenty of arguments to be made using championships or the AP poll, it's also interesting to see which Tennessee teams were the most talented in the eyes of NFL scouts.  I think NFL Draft data gives you a more compelling argument than recruiting rankings, since obviously you're seeing the back end of a player's career instead of the front end potential.  The NFL Draft is still measuring potential in a way too - twenty years ago Heath Shuler was taken with the third pick - but there's a lot more to go on at that point.  Looking at these numbers, you can also see what immense talent did for the best Vol teams, and what the Tennessee name in turn did for some of them (and what it does for schools like Alabama now) on draft day.

Today is part one of a three-part series this week, looking at the number of starters drafted from each Tennessee team in the last 25 years as well as the preseason and final AP polls and a narrative refresher on each team.  This data was taken from UT's media guide and compiled myself from the all-time starting lineups and the Vols in the NFL Draft sections; as always let us know in the comments if you see anything additionally helpful or anything I missed.

We examined teams from 1989 on, for one because 25 years is a nice round number, for two because '89 represents the beginning of the golden era of UT football, and for three because I'm 32 years old and that's about as far back as I can reliably remember.

Today we'll look at what are, in my opinion, the five most underachieving Tennessee teams of the last 25 years.  Tomorrow we'll look at the middle of the pack from 1989-2013, the teams who performed somewhere in the neighborhood of what they were capable of.  And on Friday we'll look at the five most overachieving teams of this era.

We begin today with the underachievers...

5. 2008 - Fulmer's Farewell

  • Preseason AP Rank:  18
  • Final AP Rank:  NR
  • Season Record:  5-7
  • Starters Drafted:  6
The 2008 Vols returned eight starters on offense from a division champion, but had to replace Erik Ainge and David Cutcliffe, and it showed.  Dave Clawson's new system took time the Vols didn't have to install, and when Tennessee lost six games in which they scored 14 points or less, it cost Phillip Fulmer his job.  This wasted an all-time performance from the Vol defense, third nationally in total defense and yards per play allowed.  Only six starters from the 2008 team were drafted, but three of them - Eric Berry, Dan Williams, and Robert Ayers - were defensive standouts taken in the first round.  And remember, Arian Foster wasn't drafted but was very much a part of this team as well.  The '08 Vols lost to eventual undefeated division champions Florida and Alabama, but also lost to a 4-8 UCLA team, a 5-7 Auburn team that cost Tommy Tuberville his job, got blown out by an eventual 7-6 South Carolina team, and of course, lost to Wyoming after the Fulmer news.  It was this team's inability to stop the snowball from rolling downhill that cost Fulmer his job and severed ties with the winningest era of program history.  They are one of four Vol teams in the last 25 years to start the year in the Top 25 but finish outside the poll.

4. 1999 - The Year After
  • Preseason AP Rank:  2
  • Final AP Rank:  9
  • Season Record:  9-3
  • Starters Drafted:  15
John Ward has a line in the Decade of Dominance DVD where he talks about what an achievement it's been overall for a nine win season to be considered a disappointment.  The conversation coming in was how the '99 Vols might be even more talented than their National Champion predecessors, much of that geared around the maturation of Tee Martin.  The losses were few in number but large in leadership:  Al Wilson, Peerless Price, Shawn Bryson, and even Jeff Hall.  Tennessee lost at Florida because it couldn't block Alex Brown, then almost lost to Memphis before pulling it out 17-16.  The Vols were business as usual in October, beating Auburn 24-0, taking down #9 Georgia 37-20, and scoring a win over the eventual SEC Champions in Tuscaloosa 21-7.  After throttling Notre Dame 38-14 the Vols were back to #2 in the BCS and set up for a rematch with Florida State in mid-November.  But a stunning 28-24 loss at Arkansas ended the championship hopes, and the Vols fared no better against Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl in a 31-21 loss.  In this case there was nowhere to go but down, but most of the same cast from a National Championship team ending the year with three losses has to be considered a disappointment.

3. 2012 - The Bamboo is a Lie
  • Preseason AP Rank:  NR
  • Final AP Rank:  NR
  • Season Record:  5-7
  • Starters Drafted:  4+
Last year Tennessee sent four players, all on offense, to the NFL Draft from Derek Dooley's final team.  But we're probably going to add several other names to that list next week, and could add A.J. Johnson, Curt Maggitt, and Brian Randolph in the future.  There is a very real chance Dooley's final team will eventually have 10+ starters drafted, which would make it the first Vol squad since 2003 to send double digit starters to the pros, plus Tyler Bray.  Such numbers would validate what many believed before, during, and after the 2012 season:  Tennessee had the talent to win again, but clearly not the coaching.  The 2012 defense remains the worst in school history, ranking in the triple digits in a number of statistical categories including total defense and yards per play allowed.  This negated the performance of one of the best offenses in school history which would have had a chance to chase some of Peyton Manning's records had it qualified for a bowl game.  Instead, the offense was only good enough to be close against Florida, Georgia, Mississippi State, South Carolina, and Missouri.  I hope we start winning again soon so I can stop thinking about what could have been when I see Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson on Sundays.

2. 2002 - The Step Back
  • Preseason AP Rank:  5
  • Final AP Rank:  NR
  • Season Record:  8-5
  • Starters Drafted:  14
Here's an excellent reminder of how things used to be around here.  Tennessee lost ten players from the 2001 team to the NFL Draft, including Travis Stephens, Donte Stallworth, both corners and the entire defensive line.  But you were so used to Tennessee simply reloading, you assumed the Vols - one half of football in Atlanta short of playing for the BCS title again the year before - would be right back in the championship hunt the following year, and maybe even finish business this time around.  Steve Spurrier was gone, the SEC was Tennessee's for the taking.  Instead, the '02 Vols lost one of the most infuriating games of all-time to Ron Zook and the Gators in a Neyland Stadium downpour, 30-13.  It took six overtimes to beat Arkansas, a thrilling and memorable affair but also a sign of things to come.  Casey Clausen would miss the following week at Georgia, an 18-13 loss which knocked Kelley Washington out for the year, and Clausen's return wasn't enough to stop Alabama from ending UT's seven year reign with a 34-14 win in Knoxville.  Then, speaking of talent, the Vols faced a true juggernaut in #1 Miami and fell 26-3.  You could blame it on injuries and schedule until the Peach Bowl, when an uninspired Vol squad got housed by Maryland 30-3.  This team would still eventually send 14 starters to the NFL including Jason Witten, but represented the end of UT's golden era and a definitive step back from college football's elite.

1. 2005 - The Beginning of the End
  • Preseason AP Rank:  3
  • Final AP Rank:  NR
  • Season Record:  5-6
  • Starters Drafted:  9
Unlike 2002, the 2005 Vols actually returned most of the pieces from a great team the year before.  Tennessee lost Kevin Burnett and Cedric Houston to the NFL Draft, but the play of Erik Ainge as a true freshman and the dominant close against Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl had fans thinking about multiple championships.  But Tennessee massively mishandled the quarterback situation, with Ainge and Rick Clausen splitting time all year.  Tennessee dodged a bullet against UAB in the opener, but lost 16-7 in The Swamp.  The Vols looked to save their season with The Rally in Death Valley, but ultimately it shows how close this team was to being 4-7.  Like the 2008 Vols, a tremendous defensive effort was wasted as Tennessee lost four games in which they scored 14 15 points or less.  These included consecutive brutal losses in October, 6-3 at Alabama and 16-15 against Steve Spurrier and South Carolina.  Injuries also took their toll and played a part in late season losses at Notre Dame and the first loss to Vanderbilt since 1982, keeping the Vols home for the holidays for the first time since 1988.  This season cost Randy Sanders his job and would turn the heat up on Phillip Fulmer to a level that never really went away.  There were three eventual first round picks on this roster but only Jason Allen earned a starting job, and he was injured and lost for the year against Georgia.  Robert Meachem made little to no impact until the following season, and Jerod Mayo was just a freshman.  This team saw the greatest fall from August to November.

What memories do you have of these teams, and are there other candidates for greatest underachievers?  We'll be back the rest of this week with a look at happier times.