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Who Are the Best Teams the Vols Have Beaten?

Rivalries, championships, Heisman finalists and more in our Top 5.

Tennessee v Florida X Stephens

Throughout this off-season we've been using some of the good work Bill Connelly has been doing at SB Nation and Football Study Hall in revisiting college football’s recent history:

As Bill’s year-by-year countdown has now covered the 1980’s, we're taking this opportunity to look at the best teams the Vols have beaten since then. Lists at Football Study Hall have ranked the 50 best teams of each decade using S&P+ for the 80’s, 90's and 00’s. It’s no surprise four of Tennessee’s five best victims in the last 35 years came from the program's peak from 1995-2001. This in part shows how rare mammoth upsets are: it took Tennessee's very best teams to get these very best wins.

The top five differ a bit from what I would have listed myself; as we saw with S&P+ listing 1993 as the program’s best team of the 90's, it's more of an argument about who you’d least like to face on a neutral field next Saturday and less about the moments those individual teams were or weren’t able to create. Two honorable mentions: a pair of ties against 1985 UCLA and the eventual national champions from Colorado in 1990, two opponents that would rank fourth and fifth on this list if we included them. Those two plus all five of these were ranked one of the 50 best teams of their decade.

Here are the five best teams the Vols have beaten since 1980 in S&P+:

5. 1999 Alabama (21-7, Tuscaloosa) - 95.93 S&P+ percentile

If this was a list of the least appreciated Tennessee wins of the last 35 years, this one might rank higher than five. At this point the Vols had beaten Alabama four years in a row and were coming off a national championship. The Tide were 5-1 with three straight ranked wins, had a legitimate Heisman candidate in Shaun Alexander, and the rivalry had moved back to Tuscaloosa for the first time in 69 years. I was a freshman at UT and was at this game, and it’s surreal to think about the certainty Tennessee fans felt on this day. I would imagine it felt like the certainty Alabama fans will feel if they roll into Knoxville in the top five again this season. It was a year late, but this was a textbook 1998 performance: 7-7 game at halftime, Tennessee defense locks everything down, Tee Martin makes a couple of big plays to win it. In this case a 43-yard pass to David Martin and a 21-yard fourth quarter scramble from Tee sealed the deal. Jamal Lewis out-rushed Shaun Alexander 117 to 98 and the Vols earned their fifth straight in this rivalry; Alabama would go on to win the SEC Championship Game over Florida.

4. 1985 Alabama (16-14, Birmingham) - 96.07 S&P+ percentile

I was only four years old, but would spend the rest of my childhood watching this one via the Vol Network’s "Sweet Taste of Sugar" VHS tape. Tennessee was coming off what would be its only loss of the season at Florida, with the aforementioned tie of #10 UCLA and a win over Bo Jackson and #1 Auburn earlier in the year. Alabama was ranked 15th but had lost three straight in the series. Tennessee led 16-7 in the fourth quarter when quarterback Tony Robinson was lost for the season with an injury. Alabama responded with a touchdown and got the ball back with less than 10 minutes to play. Down the stretch the Vols survived three Tide drives inside Tennessee territory when a field goal would have given Alabama the lead on any of them. The first was turned away by an iconic play from Dale Jones against Alabama quarterback Mike Shula. After that the Vols stopped Alabama on fourth down at midfield, then watched a 61-yard field goal fall short as time expired to preserve the 16-14 win. This would help Tennessee earn the 1985 SEC Championship and send the Vols to New Orleans for their 35-7 thrashing of Miami, but in S&P+ this win at Alabama was actually more impressive.

3. 1995 Ohio State (20-14, Citrus Bowl) - 97.29 S&P+ percentile

This one is always my standard answer to this question. Both teams came in tied for fourth in the AP poll, the Vols’ only loss at Florida and Ohio State’s only loss at Michigan in the final game of the regular season, denying them what could have been a share of the national championship. This team featured Heisman winner Eddie George, who joined wide receiver Terry Glenn and tight end Rickey Dudley as three of the first 14 picks in the following April’s NFL Draft. The following year offensive tackle Orlando Pace went first overall and defensive back Shawn Springs went two picks later, meaning this team had five Top 15 draft picks in its starting lineup. If we ask who the most talented team the Vols have ever beaten or perhaps played was, this might still be the answer.

In a downpour that rivals any you’ve sat through, Tennessee scored a 20-14 win thanks to a pair of big plays from Peyton Manning and Jay Graham and an incredible effort from Tennessee’s defense. The Buckeyes fumbled on the game’s final three drives, the first two setting up Volunteer field goals before the third served as the dagger. Graham out-gained Eddie George 154 to 101. It is the only meeting between Tennessee and Ohio State.

2. 1998 Florida State (23-16, BCS Championship) - 97.92 S&P+ percentile

You know all the details here. This one gets a half-asterisk (halfsterisk?) because the ‘98 Noles rose to such heights with Chris Weinke at the helm for ten games, but his neck injury kept him out of the Fiesta Bowl. Still, you don’t have to offer any apologies when you win the national championship, and you can expect to find a great team on the other sideline. Peter Warrick was held to one catch despite Tennessee losing corner Dwayne Goodrich in the second quarter. And Florida State’s vaunted defense was burned by Peerless Price, who picked up 199 yards on just four catches, including what may be the biggest play in program history.

1. 2001 Florida (34-32, Gainesville) - 98.86 S&P+ percentile

First of all, isn’t it strange and even more impressive that all five of these took place outside of Knoxville?

The ‘01 Gators aren’t just the best team Tennessee has beaten in the last 35 years via this metric, they’re one of the ten best teams Tennessee has played in that span. That list includes five national champions, two runners-up, an undefeated regular season from Florida in 2009 and a playoff participant from Alabama in 2014...and this 2001 Gator squad, which would have given any of them a run for their money and was an 18-point favorite over Tennessee.

We’ve spilled tens of thousands of words on this game on our site, on Travis Stephens and Bobby Graham, on getting the last word on Steve Spurrier at Florida, on what the game meant in the heat of the 2001 season and how it still stands as the best-played Tennessee football game I’ve ever seen. Here are 3,500 more I wrote seven years ago in our 50 Best Games of the Fulmer Era series. Tennessee’s loss to LSU a week later always has to diminish it in some ways, but seeing the 2001 Gators atop this list gives it additional life for me.

Do you agree with this list? What other great teams the Vols vanquished should be on it?