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Comparing Tennessee to other “snakebitten” programs

Is Tennessee unique in its futility? Or is just the most recent victim?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: AUG 31 Georgia State at Tennessee Photo by Matthew Maxey/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In what seems like the longest running joke in sports, Tennessee football continues to find a lower point in the dumpster to reside in. A loss to Georgia State in the first game of the season and an atrocious loss to BYU in the second has many wondering if Tennessee is once again back in the coaching carousel. There’s even a larger question of whether or not this program is even “fixable”.

It’s hard to blame them. Ever since the 2007 season, Tennessee has racked up the unwanted recognition and seemingly thrown money at a problem that money can’t solely fix. The institutional problems have been beat to death and we will not go over a decade’s worth of mismanagement.

What we wanted to figure out was trifold: How many other programs experienced these issues, were any of them as bad as Tennessee, and how did they get out of them?

I attempted to grab a snapshot of programs somewhat similar to Tennessee who experienced slumps in the modern era of college football. I limited the names to programs who had at least some prestige, who subsequently fell from that mantle. I also tried to find the stretches closest to modern day, since college football changes so dramatically with each passing decade.

When marking up “Major Bowls”, we had to make a judgement call on some of them. The prestige of certain bowls has fluctuated throughout the years (Peach Bowl as one example). For the purposes of this article, if the bowl featured both teams ranked, we included it in the tally.

Tennessee Volunteers (2008-2018)

Winning Percentage: .489 (67-70)

Major Bowls: 0

Bad news: There’s is essentially one other program in this article that reached the pure depravity of Tennessee’s lost decade, and it was back in the 90s. There are others who come quite close! But only Tennessee and LSU dipped below .500 on their overall record.

Tennessee’s snakebitten program more or less started after the 2007 team, though most Vols fans remember that team as probably a little worse than its record. Ironically, at this point fans would welcome a 2007-type season on bended knees.

0 major bowls and 0 conference championship appearances sting mightily as well. Tennessee was quite close to putting a number in both those columns until Butch Jones did his thing and blew a completely straightforward path to the SEC Championship Game with losses to South Carolina and Vanderbilt.

LSU Tigers (1989-1999)

Winning Percentage: .471 (58-65)

Major Bowls: 0

Behold. The only team on this list which had a lower winning percentage than Tennessee. Please, no photos.

LSU wasn’t particularly prestigious before the 90s, but they also weren’t total pushovers. In fact, they were fairly similar to Tennessee for most of the 80s, and both entered the next decade looking for greener pastures. The Tigers went the opposite direction—they missed a bowl six straight years and did not win more than five games until 1995. In 1996 and 1997 they had a nice rebound with some 10-2 and 9-3 seasons (respectively), but they quickly collapsed again with a 4-7 and 3-8 showing in the next two. The Tigers were pretty downtrodden by the time the new millennium rolled around.

Then they hired some guy named Nick Saban. In due time, Saban built the Tigers into a national contender, eventually bringing them back to the mountaintop in 2003. Since then, the Tigers have been one of the mainstays in the SEC.

Clemson Tigers (1994-2004)

Winning Percentage: .540 (67-57)

Major Bowls: 0

Perhaps the Tigers in South Carolina are a bit more encouraging as a comparison. Clemson had a fantastic run in the late 70s and all throughout the 80s—they went to (roughly) seven major bowls, recorded six seasons of 10+ wins, and even won a national championship in 1981. Nearly identical to what Tennessee experienced in the first decade under Phillip Fulmer (10 major bowls, seven 10+ win seasons, one national championship). Clemson’s prestige had risen quite a bit by the time the 1990s rolled around.

Instead of building on it, Clemson fell off a cliff. In the 10 years after 1993, they would not record a single 10+ win season, and they ended up missing a bowl game three times. Though the bowls they did go to were not very prestigious, since Clemson was right near .500 for most of this stretch.

If there’s any hope for a program like Tennessee, it’s examples like this. The first few years of Dabo Swinney were not pretty. In fact, it wasn’t that long ago when a number of Clemson fans felt that Swinney was a bumbling idiot who could never win big games. Safe to say any questions about that have been squashed.

Alabama Crimson Tide (1997-2007)

Winning Percentage: .548 (74-61)

Major Bowls: 2

These were some good times for Tennessee fans. The Crimson Tide faltered amidst a storm of NCAA punishments, bad coaching hires, and simply bizarre offseason happenings (Mike Price being the funniest). While they had some good years strewn about through the decade, Alabama was a shell of its former self. This included a lopsided 3-8 record against the much more organized Tennessee Volunteers, who took advantage of the downed program to vault towards the top of the SEC.

Like LSU earlier in the list, that quickly changed when Nick Saban was hired as head coach. The most encouraging part of this snapshot is recognizing that other programs in college football had similarly embarrassing events which undermined their credibility on a larger stage. Nobody was talking about an Alabama dynasty after the Price fiasco, and many assumed Alabama would stay down for a good while longer. That seems ridiculous in hindsight, but it goes to show how things change on a dime.

Texas Longhorns (2010-2017)

Winning Percentage: .567 (63-48)

Major Bowls: 0

The often-mocked “Texas is back!” remark certainly has its roots in the Longhorns’ futility in the most recent decade. Almost immediately after the national championship against Alabama, the Longhorns immediately underwent a downturn.

Much like Tennessee’s recent decade, Texas was consistently bad—not inconsistent. They would not win more than 8 games after 2012 until Tom Herman rebounded in 2018 and finally broke through with 10 wins. They became widely known for their recruiting misses and the lack of talent development that became rampant during the late Mack Brown era. Hmm...

The good news for them is that their down era lasted fairly short, all things considered. They might not be as good as last season suggested, but they are certainly a step above what they were under Charlie Strong.

Oklahoma Sooners (1989-1999)

Winning Percentage: .561 (68-50-3)

Major Bowls: 0

It’s easy to forget how bad Oklahoma was in the 90s. In the 10 years before Bob Stoops took the reigns, the Sooners missed a bowl game seven times. They turned into the punching bag of the Big 12, routinely being embarrassed by teams like Nebraska and Texas A&M.

Luckily for them, Stoops turned Oklahoma around faster than anyone anticipated. He went 7-5 in his first year with the program in 1999, before reeling off an undefeated season in 2000. They capped it off with a national championship over the Florida State Seminoles—their first title since 1985.

I think it would be very hard to replicate that level of turnaround in today’s game. Still, it provides a good example of what happens when you hire the right coach. They tend to show results sooner rather than later.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish (1997-2009)

Winning Percentage: .572 (91-68)

Major Bowls: 3

The bad years for Notre Dame were fairly unique. Their overall winning percentage and list of accomplishments doesn’t fully reveal how they were perceived from year-to-year. Mainly because they would rapidly fluctuate from a 5-win team to a 9-win or even 10-win team—and back down to a 5-win team. It happened seven different times in this stretch!

If Notre Dame is the blueprint, the plan of action is simply “Keep hiring coaches”. They went through three different coaches before settling on Brian Kelly as a long-term option. If that applies to Tennessee, then Pruitt is the guy for the foreseeable future. If he can replicate Kelly’s success at Notre Dame, I have no problem with him receiving an extended contract.