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The Most Overachieving Tennessee Football Teams

Which Vol squads played above their talent level in the last 25 years?


We conclude our series today looking at the talent level and preseason expectations on the Tennessee teams of the last 25 years.  The most underachieving teams during this span all came in the last 15 years.  Others, including much of Tennessee's most dominant run in the 90s, played more or less up to their potential.

Picking the five overachievers was more difficult than the five underachievers.  There are three which stand out right away, but the choices we've made for the other two are much more up for debate.  For starters:

5. 2010 - This Dooley guy ain't so bad!

  • Preseason Rank:  NR
  • Final Rank:  NR
  • Season Record:  6-7
  • Starters Drafted:  5+
Ask yourself, "What's the least talented team of the last 25 years?"  2011 would certainly be in the running after Tyler Bray and Justin Hunter got hurt, but not before.  2013?  Maybe so, but I don't think they were noticeably less talented than Derek Dooley's first team.  Dooley's first team also carried extra baggage from the Kiffin fiasco and played a similarly insane schedule.

Five starters drafted is currently tied with 2011 for second fewest during this 25 year history, and 2013's total of four will rise over the next few years to eventually surpass it.  Even if 2010's number rises next week, it will do so on the strength of what were at the time freshmen offensive linemen playing because the 2010 Vols had no other choice.

If you compare Dooley's first year to Kiffin's and Butch's, I look at it this way:  coming in, I thought the goal for Kiffin's team was 8-4, but was okay with 7-5.  I thought the goal for Butch's team was 6-6, but was okay with 5-7.  But we all thought the goal for Dooley's team was 6-6, and they actually hit it.  And we all remember how close they came to winning eight games instead of six.  This team beat everyone they were supposed to and almost got a little more on top.

Here's the other question:  who else would you put on this list aside from the four teams ahead of 2010?  What other Tennessee teams went so far above their talent level to exceed expectations?  When you're so good for so long, it's hard to be considered an overachiever.  We can all agree now that Derek Dooley was not the right answer, but like Cuonzo Martin, his best coaching job was his first one.

4. 1992 - Fulmer/Majors
  • Preseason Rank:  21
  • Final Rank:  12
  • Season Record:  9-3
  • Starters Drafted:  7
Here too, you have questions.  How can the team that got Johnny Majors fired be considered an overachiever?  Remember, the Vols lost all of their big guns from the 89-91 run, and the 92 season opened with only four starters returning on offense and unbelievably only one returning starter on defense.  Plus the new divisional schedule put Georgia and Florida in Tennessee's path.  This team should not have been good, at least not right away.

But then Majors went out with heart surgery, Fulmer stepped in, and the Vols won a 34-31 thrilled in Athens then blew out Top 10 Florida in Knoxville in consecutive weeks.  Flash forward a few weeks and Tennessee was undefeated in mid-October and ranked 4th in the nation.  Majors returned and the Vols lost by one point to Arkansas, by seven to eventual National Champion Alabama, and by one point at South Carolina.  And then Majors was unemployed.

Our memories of this year make it seem like something different, but the 92 team actually overachieved.  The poll data bears it out:  a +9 jump from preseason to final poll trails only the number one team on this list in the last 25 years (though of course, when you start so high in the poll most years, it's much easier to go down).  But more importantly, only 7 starters drafted is the lowest number during this era until you get all the way to 2007.  This team relied on Heath Shuler, the ground game, and turnover creation.  And it worked.

3. 1998 - The National Champion
  • Preseason Rank:  10
  • Final Rank:  1
  • Season Record:  13-0 National Champions
  • Starters Drafted:  19!
What surprised me more than anything doing the research for this series:  the 1998 team had more starters drafted than any Tennessee team of the last 25 years.  To outsiders this isn't surprising, as the Vols won the BCS title.  But to us, I think we've always considered the '98 Vols a blue-collar, no-stars team of destiny relying more on heart than talent.  But the '98 Vols would eventually have nine of their defensive starters drafted, eight offensive starters, and both specialists.

However, what this team accomplished is still overachieving.  Let me again draw your attention to Ivan Maisel's preview of Tennessee in Sports Illustrated's 1998 college football preview:

Defensively, the Vols will be hard-pressed to come remotely close to their performance of last year, when opponents averaged only 93.3 yards rushing per game. With its bewildering option, Syracuse, whom Tennessee visits on Sept. 5, may be the worst opponent for a young defense to open with—except Florida, whom the Vols play two weeks later.

The question that hangs in the air (no, not that question; after five years of humiliation, not even the loudest braggart in orange overalls honestly believes Tennessee will beat Florida this season) is whether a merely good offense will be acceptable to fans as besotted with Manning's memory as they were with the player himself.
As you'll recall, Tennessee did, in fact, beat Florida, a team that was probably more talented than them at that particular moment, as well as Donovan McNabb and Syracuse in the first two games of the season.  For the Vols to do that while Tee Martin was learning everything, then to survive the loss of Jamal Lewis in game four and actually increase their overall offensive productivity, then to beat Florida State, regardless of quarterback, with everything on the line?  To be perfect with so much inexperience coming in, to be so dominant defensively?  This team overachieved.  History looks fondly on its heart in the moment and its talent in the aftermath.

2. 2004 - Two Freshmen and an LSU Reject
  • Preseason Rank:  14
  • Final Rank:  13
  • Season Record:  10-3 SEC East Champions
  • Starters Drafted:  9
1998 is certainly the bigger accomplishment, but I think 2004 was a more surprising outcome.  If you were there, you know that once the Vols got past the Gators in '98, everyone believed we'd finish the rest of the task because we were used to it.  By 2004, the Vols had suffered through the disappointment of 2002 and an uneven season in 2003.  Throw two true freshmen quarterbacks into the mix - and remember, true freshmen who showed up in August, not January - and I think this team was more overachieving.

Also, consider the talent in the long view:  the 2004 defense had some guys who played regularly on Sundays like Parys Haralson, Omar Gaither, and Jason Allen.  But the most successful offensive starter in the NFL was Cedric Houston.  It's been ten years, but this was a memorable championship team.  But can you remember who started at wide receiver for this team?  Was either of your first two guesses Tony Brown and Chris Hannon?

Erik Ainge turned in an all-time clutch performance as the Vols beat Florida on James Wilhoit's 50 yard field goal, then the defense returned the favor with a nobody-saw-that-coming upset at #3 Georgia 19-14 where the Vols were a double digit underdog.  Two of Tennessee's three losses came to an undefeated Auburn team that still doesn't get enough credit as one of the best individual teams of the BCS era, and in the second contest Tennessee gave them all they wanted in the SEC Championship Game.  The only other loss came against Notre Dame when Erik Ainge was lost for the season, but Rick Clausen got it together enough for the Vols to destroy Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl and set the all-time bowl margin of victory record.  It's strange to say because 2005 was probably his worst coaching job, but I think 2004 was Phillip Fulmer's best work.  It is the only time other than 1998 that the Vols beat Florida, Georgia, and Alabama in the same year in the modern SEC era.

1. 1989 - The Dawn of a New Era
  • Preseason Rank:  NR
  • Final Rank:  5
  • Season Record:  11-1 SEC Champions
  • Starters Drafted:  14 (five taken in rounds which no longer exist after the length of the NFL Draft was shortened)
Those who are a little older than me will tell you the 1985 SugarVols really belong at the top of this list, but in the last 25 years 1989 is the clear winner.  The Vols hired Johnny Majors in 1977.  He got the Vols back to a bowl game after a four year absence in 1979.  He was 5-6 in 1980, then went 8-4, 6-5-1, 9-3, 7-4-1.  So the 9-1-2 SEC Championship year in 1985, in which Tennessee started the year outside the poll but beat #1 Auburn in September and #2 Miami in January by a combined score of 73-27 and won in Tuscaloosa, all this despite losing Tony Robinson for the year in the same game?  Yeah, those guys are the lifelong overachieving champions in Knoxville.

But after '85 the Vols went 7-5, then 10-2-1, then a stunning 0-6 start in 1988 after being ranked 18th in the preseason poll.  The Vols won the last five games in 1988 but beat no one of importance along the way.  They opened 1989 in similar obscurity with a 17-14 win over Colorado State.  But then the Vols went west to Pasadena, and came away from a 24-6 upset over #6 UCLA.  Two freshmen played key roles:  tailback Chuck Webb, and dual-threat Carl Pickens.  Three weeks later Tennessee beat #4 Auburn in Knoxville, the Vols rising to sixth in the polls before falling at #10 Alabama for the only loss of the season.  The '89 Vols would still split the SEC title in a three way tie with Alabama and Auburn, then went to the Cotton Bowl and beat #10 Arkansas for their third Top 10 victory of the season, an 11-1 finish and a Top 5 ranking.  This season started a thirteen year run of glory for Tennessee Football with the Vols in the thick of college football's elite; no SEC program won more games than Tennessee from 1989-2001.  It started with a 5-6 team coming off the mat to win 11 games and set a new standard for Tennessee Football.

Here's the complete list of starters drafted in the last 25 years, a handy tool for pure talent rankings:
  • 19:  1998
  • 18:  1990
  • 17:  1997
  • 16:  2001
  • 15:  1999
  • 14:  1989, 2002
  • 13:  1995
  • 11:  1996, 2000
  • 10:  1991, 1994, 2003
  • 9:  2004, 2005
  • 8:  1993, 2006
  • 7:  1992
  • 6:  2007, 2008, 2009
  • Incomplete:  2010-2013