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A look back at Tennessee’s season openers since 2000: Part two — the lost years to a hopeful new horizon

From the dark days of Kiffin and Dooley to the present, hopeful turnaround of Tennessee football

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Tennessee Bryan Lynn-USA TODAY Sports

In part one, we looked at the tail end of the Fulmer years, and folks, it sadly doesn’t get better...well for a while.

Following Fulmer’s departure, Tennessee made quick work in finding his replacement. The now infamous Lane Kiffin hiring came early in December of 2008, the very first day of the month, in fact, making Kiffin the youngest FBS head coach in the country.

Kiffin had a dreadful, drama-filled two year stint as the Raiders head coach the two years prior, almost single handedly driving Al Davis to the brink of insanity. Naturally, this departure caused some concern on Tennessee’s part, which was evident in his contract.

The contract’s incentives on the surface served almost as subliminal promises to the fanbase. Kiffin’s deal was for six years worth over 14 million dollars, including a $300,000 bonus for reaching a national championship game. As wonderful as that sounds, beneath the surface, the worries of Kiffin’s lack of loyalty sat deeper in the contract. It was back-loaded, meaning his annual salary would increase over the six years to add up to the 14.25 million. There were significant buyout clauses should the school dismiss him, but should Kiffin resign or otherwise leave for any reason, he would owe the university one million dollars.

From calling out Urban Meyer for violating NCAA recruiting rules to violating the rules himself while doing so, Kiffin’s off-putting arrogance was immediately on display, so much so that it almost distracted from his top 10 recruiting class in his first year (partially aided by Fulmer).

2009: Tennessee def. Western Kentucky 63-7

Syndication: Knoxville Michael Patrick/News Sentinel

A tuner game was just what the doctor ordered to start Kiffin’s tenure. In the very first game, quarterback Jonathan Crompton surpassed his previous season’s touchdown pass total, throwing five TDs in just over three quarters of play.

Tennessee’s running back who was also a track star and member of the First-Team All-Name squad, Montario Hardesty, rushed for 160 yards and a touchdown, kickstarting what would be one of the most productive seasons ever from a Tennessee tail back. Hardesty would finish the year with 1,345 yards and 13 touchdowns. His 1,345 rushing yards are the fourth most yards ever in a single season for a Vols running back, and it remains the most productive rushing season by a Vol since Travis Stephens’ all-time 2001 season.

Hardesty was also the team’s fourth leading receiver as the Vols had five players total 250 or more receiving yards on the season. Marsalis Teague, Quintin Hancock, and Brandon Warren hauled in receiving touchdowns in the WKU game, and tight end Luke Stocker would be on the receiving end of the other two from Crompton.

The highs of the 2009 season were equally as extreme as the lows. The following two weeks after their week one win were a pair of clunkers from Crompton. Tennessee was completely stymied by UCLA in week two, so much so that Crompton’s adjusted yards per attempt sat at -1.6. Yes, that’s a negative. The following week, he was just as ineffective against Florida, tossing a pair of interceptions in a game where Tennessee’s defense fully contained former Heisman winner, Tim Tebow. Crompton failed to crack the century mark in yards in either game.

Tennessee entered a home game against 18th ranked Georgia sitting at 2-and-3. As poorly as Crompton played in those two games against UCLA and Florida, he was almost perfect against Georgia, throwing for 310 yards on 27 attempts and tossing four touchdowns to just one interception. This kind of trend followed the Vols all season long, leading to a 7-and-6 record to end the year and a throttling at the hands of Virginia Tech in the Chik-fil-A Bowl on New Year’s Eve. Shortly thereafter, it all came crashing down...

In January of 2010, Kiffin up and left for USC in the thick of recruiting season. This was met with some not so nice remarks and acts of hatred from the Volunteer faithful. Kiffin’s lack of respect on the way out incited near riots and a vitriol that, to this day, has not died down a bit. Need proof? Have a look:

This left Tennessee scrambling, hiring Derek Dooley from Louisiana Tech just two weeks after Kiffin’s departure. Ironically, Dooley was given the keys to the kingdom at Louisiana Tech. Stemming from the Nick Saban tree, Dooley was also the only FBS coach to also serve as his school’s athletic director.

From the start, Dooley was fighting an uphill battle at every step in Knoxville. Expectations for Kiffin had been incredibly high, and with him ditching the program, those expectations and even a little bit of angry projection were cast on Dooley. Dooley wasn’t even given a full recruiting season to begin with, and with Kiffin’s departure, decommitments and transfers came with it.

2010: Tennessee def. Tennessee-Martin 50-0

Syndication: Knoxville Amy Smotherman Burgess/News Sentinel

For the first time since 1983, Tennessee faced an FCS opponent, opening the season with its first shutout in seven years. Junior Louisville and El Camino transfer Matt Simms took over as the signal caller for the Vols, and he had a respectable performance, throwing for 181 yards and a touchdown.

The Vols’ rushing attack and smothering defense controlled the game as the Vols scored four rushing touchdowns on the day. Tauren Poole tallied 160 of his 1,034 yards and one of his 11 rushing touchdowns on the season in this game.

Denarius Moore hauled in Simms’ lone touchdown pass, racking up 66 yards on four receptions. Moore would lead the 2010 Vols in receiving yards with 981 on just 47 receptions. His 20.9 yards per catch led the SEC.

Simms almost exclusively struggled the rest of the season as the Vols’ starter, throwing just eight touchdowns to five interceptions. He eventually losing the job to freshman Tyler Bray following a 2-and-6 start to the season. Bray took over against Memphis and a new breath of fresh air was given to the offense almost immediately.

The Vols would win out the rest of their regular season schedule, salvaging a lost season with a 6-and-6 finish before falling in the Music City Bowl to North Carolina. Bray threw 16 of his 18 touchdown passes in five games as Tennessee’s starter. The one downfall would be the seven interceptions in the last three games, but it was safe to say there was actually something to look forward to in 2011.

2011: Tennessee def. Montana 42-16

Syndication: Knoxville Amy Smotherman Burgess, Knoxville News Sentinel

Bray was named the starting quarterback for Tennessee in 2011, and he came out of the gates with some ferocity. Bray completed 17 of 24 passes for 293 yards and three touchdowns against FCS-level Montana. His chemistry with Tennessee’s top two receivers, Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers was on full display as both wideouts hauled in a touchdown while reaching the century mark in yards on the day. Tauren Poole added 98 yards on the ground and another score.

In week two, Bray had his best game of the season against Butch Jones’ Cincinnati squad...more on him later. Bray completed 34 of 41 passes for 405 yards and four touchdowns in a 45-23 victory. Both Rogers and Hunter eclipsed the 100 yard mark on the day once again, and Poole added 101 on the ground. Though it was early in non-conference, the offense was clicking on all cylinders in ways it hadn’t in years.

However, things rapidly changed from on opening series against Florida the next week. On the Vols’ first offensive drive of the game, star wide receiver Justin Hunter tore his ACL, effectively ending his season. The offensive explosiveness and just overall confidence was completely deflated. The Vols had a real shot of ending their losing streak to the Gators in the Swamp, but their fate was sealed early.

Bray would play well the following game in a win over Buffalo, but the injury bug bit again the following week, and it bit hard. Bray broke his thumb in the Vols’ 20-12 loss at home to Georgia, sidelining him for over a month. Without Bray, Tennessee lost four of their next five games. Their lone win was over Middle Tennessee State, but all four losses were to top 15 SEC squads, including the two teams who would end up playing for the National Championship, LSU and Alabama.

Bray would come back for the Vols’ second to last game against Vandy, and though they won, Bray was clearly rusty. He struggled mightily against Kentucky the following week in a game that Tennessee lost, keeping them out of a bowl game. It was the first time since 1984 that Tennessee lost to Kentucky.

2012: Tennessee def. NC State 35-21

Syndication: Knoxville Michael Patrick, MICHAEL PATRICK/NEWS SENTINEL

2012 marked the end of the short-lived Dooley era, but at least it started with a non-conference Power-Five victory! Tyler Bray began his final year in Rocky Top with a 333 yard, two touchdown performance. Do-it-all star Cordarrelle Patterson racked up 93 yards receiving and 72 yards rushing on just two carries. He scored twice in the game with the first coming on a 41 yard score from Bray, and the other coming on a 67 yard rushing touchdown.

The Vols put a beatdown on FCS Georgia State the next week and actually found themselves ranked 23rd ahead of their matchup with Florida. It marked the first time since the 2008 preseason AP poll that Tennessee was ranked. It sadly did not last long.

Bray, Patterson, and co. were able to hold a lead for most of the first three quarters, but an 80 yard touchdown run from Florida’s Trey Burton tied the game at 20, and the Vols never moved the scoreboard again from there. Florida added another score late in the third and another in the fourth, winning 37-20 in a game that Tennessee had full control of for 42 minutes. Make that eight straight losses against Florida.

It didn’t get any better at any point the rest of the season. Heartbreak after heartbreak in conference play broke the hearts and spirits of Vols fans everywhere. Tennessee lost one-possession games to fifth-ranked Georgia in Athens, 17th-ranked South Carolina, and Missouri. The Vols looked like a Big 12 program trying to compete in the SEC, and it went very poorly. Tennessee’s defense surrendered the most points it ever has in a single season up to that point, giving up 428 points, good for 35.7 points per game allowed. Despite the offense scoring over 36 points per game, it became a moot point.

Jim Chaney took over as the interim head coach for Tennessee’s lone SEC victory over Kentucky.

The Vols finished 5-and-7, going 1-and-7 in SEC play, bringing Dooley’s three year conference play record to 4-and-19.

2013: Tennessee def. Austin Peay 45-0

Syndication: Knoxville Michael Patrick/News Sentinel

Tennessee hired Butch Jones from Cincinnati in early December of 2012, and he inherited a completely ransacked program. Dooley failed miserably on the recruiting trail in comparison to much of the rest of the SEC, but Jones immediately came in and found a way to turn scraps into some treasure.

Within two months, Jones was able to get a key commitment from now Rocky Top legend, quarterback Joshua Dobbs. Jones was also able to get a commitment from now Steelers cornerback, Cam Sutton. Despite getting no time on the recruiting trail, Jones was able to nab two future staples of very good Vols teams.

However, 2013 was one big painful process of getting to those years. Jones inherited a historically poor defense and a Tyler Bray-less offense. Not to mention, Alabama has now won consecutive BCS National Championships, and before them, it was Auburn getting one in 2010. Auburn would also represent the SEC in the last BCS Championship game in this season, but they’d fall to Florida State. Long story short, the SEC was dominating the college football landscape and Tennessee was nowhere to be found within it.

Jones was able to scrounge together the pieces, and, much like the two coaches preceding him, he was able to get a couple of tuner games under his belt, allowing him to take his first breaths in Knoxville. The Vols predictably thumped Austin Peay as junior but first year starting quarterback, Justin Worley, tossed a trio of TDs.

Worley would throw another touchdown the following week against Western Kentucky, but those would account for 40 percent of his touchdown passes on the year. By week nine, the Vols sat at .500 with Worley playing worse as the weeks went on. After a thumb injury to Worley, Joshua Dobbs was handed the keys to the kingdom as a true freshman. He would promptly throw five interceptions without a touchdown over the next three games, but his dynamic ability with his legs showed promise for the offense’s future direction.

Dobbs was able to piece together a solid performance against Kentucky to end the season, tossing two touchdowns and scrambling for another in a 27-14 victory. Things were finally looking up.

2014: Tennessee def. Utah State 38-7

Syndication: Knoxville Michael Patrick/News Sentinel

Worley was given back the starting job for his senior season in 2014, but quarterback was the least of Tennessee’s worries prior to the season. Jones was tasked with replacing every member of his offensive line from the season prior. Once again, it was smooth sailing for two weeks. Tennessee trounced Utah State as some new faces began to emerge as playmakers on offense.

The ultra athletic freshman, Jalen Hurd, scored his first touchdown as a Vol, catching one of Worley’s three touchdown passes early in the fourth quarter.

The Vols would comfortably defeat Arkansas State the following week, 34-19, but the big boys on the schedule were lurking. Tennessee would drop three straight games. They got dominated by fourth-ranked Oklahoma, and then dropped a pair of heartbreakers to 12th-ranked Georgia and Florida, 10-9. That’s now nine consecutive losses to Florida.

A familiar scene was brewing in Knoxville. After an easy win over FCS Chattanooga, the Vols got flat out embarrassed by third-ranked Ole Miss. Worley played very poorly while the Vols’ rushing attack was swallowed up by Ole Miss’ land shark defense, holding Tennessee to a net of zero rushing yards.

Despite the brutal loss, it served as the straw that broke the camel’s back. Joshua Dobbs was named the starter for the following week against Alabama. Dobbs had a respectable showing against the fourth-ranked Crimson Tide, throwing for 192 yards and two scores to just one interception. Dobbs added another 75 yards on the ground. The style of the offense was finally feeling more tailor-made to the type of athletes on the field, and the results over the final few weeks showed it.

Tennessee would win four of their final games behind Dobbs, including a TaxSlayer Bowl victory over Iowa. They finished the year 7-and-6, and the highlight of the season was the comeback win against South Carolina that saw the Vols trailing by 14 with just four minutes left. The final three minutes were electric as Dobbs drove Tennessee down the field twice, scoring the second touchdown with just 11 seconds remaining. Tennessee would eventually win in overtime, 45-42. Along with *the* arrival of Joshua Dobbs onto the college football scene, this kind of win was a harbinger of things to come with Jones and Dobbs.

2015: (25) Tennessee def. Bowling Green 59-30

Syndication: Knoxville Adam Lau, ADAM LAU/NEWS SENTINEL

2015 was a very promising year for Tennessee football, a feeling it hadn’t had in a very long time. They were ranked in the preseason top 25 for the first time in seven years, and Butch Jones brought in the third ranked recruiting class, nabbing two five-stars, defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie and defensive lineman Kyle Phillips. The star of this recruiting class ended up being running back Alvin Kamara, stealing him away from Alabama at the last second.

As for the Vols on the field in 2015, it was like watching a totally different football team than in year’s past. A brand was established. Run the damn ball. The Vols totaled 613 rushing attempts for the season, and they showcased that identity immediately. Jalen Hurd and Kamara rushed for 123 and 144 yards respectively, with Hurd tallying three rushing scores and Kamara scoring twice. Joshua Dobbs added another 89 yards and another touchdown on the ground as Tennessee rushed for 399 yards and six touchdowns on the day.

Defensively, this crew was a major improvement over the years prior in the points category. In terms of yardage? Eh, but they only allowed 30-plus points three times all season. Textbook bend-don’t-break. The Vols dropped a double overtime heartbreaker on the back end of their home-and-home against Oklahoma, getting Baker’d in the second OT after blowing a 17-0 lead. Dobbs struggled throughout, and his interception in the second overtime sealed the game.

A similar fate struck the Vols against Florida, falling short by a single point, 28-27. Tennessee proved to have a proficient rushing attack, but the passing game was lacking. After a lackluster performance against OU, Dobbs didn’t even crack the 100 yard mark against Florida. The scrutiny only boldened after the Vols blew another double digit lead the following week in a 24-20 loss against Arkansas. Three home games, three games with double digit leads, three losses. Brutal.

The Vols answered this rough patch with one of its best stretches of play in recent memory. They upset Georgia at Neyland, 38-31, and Dobbs looked great. Dobbs threw for 312 yards and three touchdowns to go along with 118 yards on the ground and another score. Dobbs was responsible for every single Vol touchdown on the day, carrying Tennessee to a season flipping win.

They would fall to Alabama the next week, but Alabama also went on to win the National Championship, so, meh. This would be Tennessee’s last loss on the season as they rattled off five in a row to end the regular season before destroying 12th-ranked Northwestern 45-6 in the Outback Bowl. The Vols finished the year 9-and-4, posting a 5-and-3 conference record, their first season with a better than .500 record in conference play since 2007. The Vols finished 22nd in the AP final top 25 poll.

2016: (9) Tennessee def. Appalachian State 20-13


Oh my god could you IMAGINE if Tennessee got Michigan’d after cracking the preseason top 10 for the first time in 11 years???? It almost happened! App State led 13-3 at halftime, and hell on earth was arriving in Rocky Top. Tennessee fans were apoplectic, the season was over after two quarters...until it wasn’t. The Vols outscored App State 17-0 the rest of the way, skirting a monumental upset in the process.

After surviving the scare, Tennessee dipped to 17 in the polls, but they rattled off four more wins, starting the season 5-and-0. They took a Power-5 non-conference win at Bristol Motor Speedway over Virginia Tech, 45-24, before eeking out a nine point win over Ohio. Starting undefeated is great, but Tennessee sure wasn’t making it look pretty.

Then came that third Saturday in September. 11 straight losses. The Vols trailed 21-3 at halftime, and it looked like twelve straight losses was in order following a Joshua Dobbs interception on the Vols’ first drive of the second half. However, after a Florida 3-and-out, Joshua Dobbs decided he was going to play out of his mind. Dobbs accounted for five touchdowns in the second half, four through the air and one on the ground, and Tennessee’s defense forced five 3-and-out’s and intercepted an Austin Appleby pass, leading to a 38-28 victory, snapping what felt like a never-ending drought.

The following week brought us the highlight of the Joshua Dobbs era at Tennessee.

It’s a pillar-type moment in Tennessee football history, and the Vols were riding off a high they hadn’t had in a long time. But as the old clichés say, time is fleeting and happiness never lasts. The Vols are in the SEC after all, and they found themselves in College Station the very next week against 8th-ranked Texas A&M for a top 10 showdown.

The game itself lived up to its billing, taking two overtimes to decide a winner. Within the game, however, was a day to forget for Dobbs. Though he racked up the passing yards, his two interceptions and two lost fumbles gave him four turnovers on the day, and in a game as close as this was down to the wire, just one of those not happening could have made all the difference.

Alvin Kamara found the end zone twice, rushing for 127 yards and receiving 161 yards worth of passes from Dobbs, totaling 288 total yards on the day. A lot of Kamara’s volume was largely due to Myles Garrett wreaking havoc in the Tennessee backfield. The Vols would ultimately fall, 45-38, in the second OT, the first loss of a three game skid for the Vols.

The Vols fell to eventual National Championship runner-ups, Alabama, and then South Carolina. They rattled off three in a row before inexplicably losing to Vandy to end the regular season and keeping the Vols from a 10-win season as they would beat Nebraska 38-24 in the Music City Bowl.

2017: (25) Tennessee def. Georgia Tech 42-41 (2OT)

Syndication: Knoxville Michael Patrick/News Sentinel

2017 served to be the sad send-off for what had otherwise been a roller coaster, mostly fun four years of Butch Jones. Replacing Joshua Dobbs, Alvin Kamara, and Jalen Hurd is no easy task, but Quinten Dormady was given the reins to start the season at quarterback against Georgia Tech while John Kelly was set to be the primary running back.

The season opener personified the Butch Jones years perfectly, only this time they won the double overtime game. Dormady put together a fine first start, throwing a pair of touchdowns while John Kelly ran for 128 yards and four touchdowns. Marquez Callaway put up 115 yards receiving and hauled in both of Dormady’s touchdown passes, but the game came down the the defense stopping Tech on a 2-point conversion in the second overtime to win the game.

To keep the rest of the season brief, the Vols journey at quarterback throughout the season plagued any shot of this team being competitive. The Vols went winless in SEC play, and Jones was dismissed following a 50-17 throttling at the hands of a Josh Heupel-fueled Missouri offense. Brady Hoke served as the interim coach over the final two weeks, losing both games.

Briefly, let’s look over the results of the Pruitt years.

2018: (17) West Virginia def. Tennessee 40-14
2019: Georgia State def. Tennessee 38-30
2020: (16) Tennessee def. South Carolina 31-27

2021: Tennessee def. Bowling Green 38-6

Josh Heupel’s first year was an overall success, and it started off well, although the offense looked a little different than it would just two weeks later. Joe Milton won the starting job for Tennessee, and he ran for a pair of touchdowns and threw for another. Both Jabari Small and Tiyon Evans racked up over 100 yards rushing, each scoring a touchdown as well.

The following week against Pitt, Milton would go down with an injury, and now-star Vols quarterback, Hendon Hooker, relieved him. Hooker played well, and though a fumble and interception hurt the Vols in an eventual 41-34 loss to the eventual ACC champions, it was clear that Tennessee had their quarterback.

As we move towards the start of the 2022 season, much of the anticipation for this Vols team rides on number 5. Hooker was as good as any quarterback in the country from the moment he took over, breaking every single efficiency record the Vols had standing. He enters the year as a dark horse Heisman candidate, and hopefully behind a healthier, better offensive line, Jabari Small can take another massive leap after his breakout sophomore campaign in 2021 that saw him rush for 796 yards on 5.6 yards per carry and nine touchdowns.

The last decade was certainly not pretty, and though it wasn’t without its bright spots, Heupel and crew are excited to take us into an exciting new era of Tennessee football.