Today the Vols announced another home-and-home with Oklahoma, with Tennessee going to Norman in 2020 and the Sooners returning the favor in 2024.
These two programs squared off in 2014 and 2015, with Oklahoma winning both. The latter was a double overtime heartbreaker with some extra-curricular activity from Eric Striker after it was over.
Personally, I welcome the opportunity to get a win or two back from any team that beat us, especially one of both their pedigree and those antics. But Striker’s behavior was the exception to what was a generally well-received trip by fans of both teams; I enjoyed every interaction I had with OU fans even in the midst of such a difficult loss in Neyland.
Some would suggest a Tennessee program still struggling to live up to its own pedigree shouldn’t be scheduling the likes of Oklahoma, especially when we already face Alabama every year. But if your concern is what a schedule like this might do to our playoff chances...to have playoff chances at all means you’re good enough to not be afraid of scheduling anyone. And to believe the Vols should schedule only cupcakes is to go against what has been Tennessee’s national identity for a long and valuable time.
Tennessee’s anyone-anytime-anywhere policy (with one notable exception against North Carolina during Mike Hamilton’s tenure) coincides with their rise to prominence in the 1990’s. Here is the top non-conference team the Vols faced in the regular season every year stretching back to the beginning of Tennessee’s golden era in 1989 (this doesn’t include teams like 1990 Colorado in the Pigskin Classic or 2001 Syracuse in seasons when the Vols actually scheduled multiple power conference foes):
Tennessee Non-Conference Scheduling History
|Year||Opponent||Rank at time||End of Year||Result|
|Year||Opponent||Rank at time||End of Year||Result|
|1989||at UCLA||6||NR||W 24-6|
|1990||Notre Dame||1||6||L 34-29|
|1991||at Notre Dame||5||13||W 35-34|
|1994||at UCLA||14||NR||L 25-23|
|1995||East Carolina||NR||23||W 27-7|
|1997||at UCLA||NR||5||W 30-24|
|1998||at Syracuse||17||25||W 34-33|
|1999||Notre Dame||NR||NR||W 38-14|
|2000||Southern Miss||22||NR||W 19-16|
|2001||at Notre Dame||NR||NR||W 28-18|
|2003||at Miami||6||5||W 10-6|
|2004||Notre Dame||NR||NR||L 17-13|
|2005||at Notre Dame||8||9||L 41-21|
|2007||at California||12||NR||L 45-31|
|2008||at UCLA||NR||NR||L 27-24|
|2012||vs NC State||NR||NR||W 35-21|
|2013||at Oregon||2||9||L 59-14|
|2014||at Oklahoma||4||NR||L 34-10|
|2016||vs Virginia Tech||NR||16||W 45-24|
In 20 of the last 28 years, Tennessee’s major non-conference opponent was either ranked the week of the game or ranked in the final AP poll. And three of those exceptions are Notre Dame in 1999, 2001, and 2004; your 4-8 jokes go here, but in reality no one is going to accuse you of taking it easy by scheduling the Irish.
The addition of Oklahoma solidifies Tennessee’s power conference scheduling requirement for the next eight years. The Vols will face Georgia Tech in the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Labor Day this year, then West Virginia in Charlotte in 2018 before home-and-homes with BYU, Pittsburgh, and now Oklahoma stretch out between 2019-2024.
The Sooners are clearly the front-runners among this next group of opponents. I think this list of five teams actually strikes a nice balance between Tennessee’s aggressive scheduling history and the reality of its current program.
Twelve times in the last 28 years the Vols have faced a team that was in the Top 10 the week of the game or in the final poll. Right now, with Tennessee still looking for its first 9-3 regular season since 2007 and its first season with less than four losses overall since 2004, it would have been foolish to add home-and-homes with Clemson, Florida State, and Ohio State alongside Oklahoma over the next eight years. When Phillip Fulmer left in 2008 the Vols had upcoming home-and-homes with Ohio State, Nebraska, Oregon, and Oklahoma; only the latter pair ultimately happened, but that’s who Tennessee was when they were winning on a regular basis.
Tennessee beat what turned out to be a really good Virginia Tech team last year and decimated #13 Northwestern in the Outback Bowl at the end of the 2015 season, but the Vols haven’t beaten a ranked non-conference team in the regular season since stunning Cal in the 2006 opener. Right now we’re at a place where courting all of the best of college football’s best is unwise.
But courting none of them is also unwise. If the Vols were go to eight years without scheduling any national powerhouses? That would have represented a clear break in not just philosophy but national identity, and been an unnecessary step back for the program. You can’t be afraid of who you’re playing in 2020, especially when Butch Jones has done a good job restoring the talent level. The Vols are far closer to the top than they were when Jones inherited Oregon-Oklahoma-Oklahoma in his first three years.
So instead of filling the slate with murderer’s row, the Vols have a pair of reasonable neutral site games left, a series with a BYU program on the short list of schools we’ve never faced, some available creativity with a Johnny Majors tie against Pitt, and yes, Oklahoma. It both respects where Tennessee has been and where Tennessee is. And if things go well for the Vols and Butch Jones, another crack at Oklahoma will only be something to look forward to.