This past year’s Tennessee football team became just the fifth in school history to finish the year in the top 10 after beginning it unranked dating back to the start of the AP Preseason Poll in 1950. Here is a look at all five times the Vols overachieved to such drastic heights.
Before Josh Heupel’s second year, Doug Dickey had a legendary second year on the job. Tennessee football had gone 4-5-1 his first year as he was installing his offensive system, the slot-T, and moving on from the single-wing that UT had run since 1926, and had grown stale doing. As a result, they started this year unranked. To be fair, this is skewed, as the AP Poll only listed the top 10 teams in this era, but UT wouldn’t have made the top 20 or top 25.
After a 3-0-2 start with ties against the Auburn Tigers and Alabama Crimson Tide, a 21-7 win over the No. 7 ranked and SEC rival Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets finally got them into the rankings. At No. 8, though, they lost to the Ole Miss Rebels a week later. Still, they won their final three games, including a 37-34 win over the No. 5 ranked UCLA Bruins, to finish No. 7. Then they beat the Tulsa Golden Hurricane in the Bluebonnet Bowl to finish the season 8-1-2.
It was a little wild that the Vols didn’t start the year in the top 25 given the amount of returning talent. However, they cracked the rankings at No. 24 after their season-opening win. Then a road win over the Pittsburgh Panthers pushed them to the top 15.
A home win over the Florida Gators got them to the top 10, and their huge win over Alabama got them to the top five. They lost two games in November but beat the Clemson Tigers in the Orange Bowl to finish 11-2 and ranked No. 6 in both polls after starting the year unranked.
In 1969, Tennessee football won its second SEC Championship in three years. However, voters seemed to place heavy emphasis on Doug Dickey leaving for Florida and a 29-year-old Bill Battle taking over to run the program, so they began the year unranked.
To be fair, UT cracked the top 20 with a season-opening win over the SMU Mustangs, but they fell right out after losing to the Auburn Tigers. Two weeks later, they scored a win over No. 13 ranked Georgia Tech, and they stayed in the polls the rest of the year, winning out to finish 11-1 and ranked No. 4 after beating the Air Force Falcons in the Sugar Bowl.
By far the most beloved team in school history before 1998, the Vols entered 1985 on the heels of a 7-4-1 season in 1984. They hadn’t had a top 25 finish since 1974 at the time, and they began this year unranked. A tie with the No. 10 UCLA Bruins and win over No. 1 Auburn got them in the polls for the first time since 1979.
They started the year 3-1-2 but lost quarterback Tony Robinson for the season and found themselves at No. 19. Well, they won out, and by the time they faced the Vanderbilt Commodores, they had their first top 10 ranking since 1973. Winning that game clinched them their first SEC Championship since 1969. Then they shocked the No. 2 ranked Miami Hurricanes 35-7 in the Sugar Bowl to finish No. 4, their first top five finish since 1970.
Four years after that legendary 1985 campaign, Johnny Majors did it again. Just like that year, he got the ball rolling with UCLA and Auburn. Tennessee football had started 1988 with an 0-6 record, and while they finished 5-6, they still missed a bowl, which is why they started this year unranked. A 17-14 win over the Colorado State Rams to open the season didn’t help their case.
However, a week later, they beat No. 6 ranked UCLA on the road to crack top 20. Then they beat the eventual ACC Champions and Steve Spurrier led Duke Blued Devils. Two weeks later, they beat No. 4 Auburn. At 5-0 and No. 6, they suffered their only loss, at Alabama. Then they won out, though, sharing the SEC with Alabama and Auburn. After UT won the Cotton Bowl, they finished 11-1 and No. 5 in both polls.