Bill Connelly's march through time over at Football Study Hall has now covered the fullness of the 1990s, Tennessee's most celebrated decade of the modern era. His program rankings for the decade had the Vols right where you'd expect them, in fourth place behind Florida State, Nebraska, and Florida. But his individual season rankings were much more interesting from a Volunteer perspective.
We looked last month at 1998 from the S&P+ perspective used in these retrospectives; the Vols were only the fourth-rated team from that season. For obvious reasons '98 is the most memorable season of the decade; Tennessee's next highest finish in the AP & coaches' polls in the 90's came via an 11-1 season in 1995, finishing third and second respectively. This sometimes causes fans to hold that team in second-highest esteem of the 90's. There are other contenders, including an SEC Champion in 1990, another in Peyton Manning's senior season of 1997, and the 1999 squad FiveThirtyEight called one of the 25 most talented in college football history.
And yet, according to S&P+ percentile? The best Tennessee team of the 1990s was actually Heath Shuler's final year at the helm in 1993:
In terms of just how we remember them, how far down the list of this decade do the '93 Vols fall? Definitely behind SEC Champions from '90, '97, and of course '98, and as we always mention when talking about the 90's for Tennessee we're really also including 1989 and 2001 in that run, two more years with titles to remember. The aforementioned '95 Vols are certainly more fondly remembered.
What helps you get remembered if you don't win championships? Meaningful, memorable victories. The '91 Vols are at the bottom of this list, but they've got The Miracle at South Bend. Peyton Manning's junior season in 1996 featured the first win over Alabama in Neyland Stadium in a dozen years. And if you expand the definition of "memorable", the '92 Vols with the transition from Majors to Fulmer certainly ranks higher than 1993. Throw in the ultimately disappointing but certainly talented bunch from 1999, and I can argue that of all the years in Tennessee's prime from 1989-2001, only a pair of rebuilds with true freshmen quarterbacks in 1994 and 2000 are thought of less frequently than the '93 Vols are today.
Which is a shame, because as you can see, these guys were great.
The main reason we don't remember them as well is because they lack a signature win. Of the five straight losses the Vols suffered to Florida in the mid-90s, theirs was by far the most competitive: a 41-34 shootout loss in The Swamp. Tennessee actually out-gained Florida in this game and Heath Shuler went 25 of 41 for 355 yards and five touchdowns, three to Alcoa's Billy Williams.
The game they are most remembered for around here was the 17-17 tie at #2 Alabama, later forfeited to the Vols thanks to Antonio Langham. This day in Birmingham was really a great achievement: Tennessee halted Alabama's 28-game winning streak and did so on the road on a day when Shuler injured his shoulder and stayed in the game. But because the game ended with Alabama driving the length of the field to erase a 17-9 deficit, getting a two-point conversion from David Palmer, it felt every bit like a loss and still does to this day.
The '93 Vols played only two other ranked teams in the regular season. What they did in those games was what they did to everyone else in that span: total annihilation.
Georgia came to Knoxville ranked 22nd. Tennessee won 38-6, out-gaining the Dawgs 478 to 247. In November Louisville came to Knoxville ranked 13th. Tennessee won 45-10. The '93 Vols also beat LSU by 22 and South Carolina, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt by a combined 165-17. David Cutcliffe was not messing around.
This team set and still holds the school record for points per game at 42.8. They then suffered a puzzling 31-13 loss to Penn State in the Citrus Bowl, jumping to a 10-0 lead before falling apart in Shuler's final game before turning pro. He was joined in the backfield by Charlie Garner, James Stewart, and Aaron Hayden. This combination is what may make 1993 the best comparison for 2016. Shuler finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting behind an obvious winner in Charlie Ward.
The '93 Vols also struggled to find an abundance of NFL success. Charlie Garner and James Stewart both had long careers in NFL backfields, but Shuler's struggles in Washington may have gotten more headlines. Fifteen starters off this team were drafted over the next three years, but no one became a household name.
And the '93 Vols also had the misfortune of being immediately followed by four years of Peyton Manning, then a national championship! As good as they may have been, the stories that the Vols told over those next five seasons just ended up being even better.
So no, they wouldn't be any Vol fan's pick for most memorable or best season of the decade. They lack a lasting victory and their regular season setbacks were far more competitive than given credit for. But if you view these rankings along the lines of, "Which team would I least like to see on the other sideline on a neutral field?" This team is definitely on that list, if not at the front of the line. It is this quality we most hope Team 120 can emulate, then find a way to turn such raw power into those meaningful victories this fall.