7. 1985 Tennessee Volunteers
9-1-2 (5-1 SEC)
This is one of the first Tennessee football teams that I’m not being sarcastic about. They are already among the most beloved in school history. And it’s the first real season under Johnny Majors that showed a return to prominence.
Amidst all this, the Vols have a real legitimate claim to the national championship if you look at the way titles were awarded at the time. Yes, they had two ties. And yes, they would have only shared the SEC title if the Florida Gators weren’t on probation.
But let’s consider this season for a minute. The Vols ended it by thrashing the Miami Hurricanes 35-7 in the Sugar Bowl. That was on a neutral field, and at the time, Miami was in play for a national championship. The team that won it that year, the Oklahoma Sooners, lost two Miami by two touchdowns at home that year.
Meanwhile, Oklahoma beat the No. 1 ranked and undefeated Penn State Nittany Lions in the Orange Bowl by two touchdowns. Both of those teams finished ahead of the Vols, but if you use circular logic, which was common for title teams then, it made no sense. Penn State got dominated by Oklahoma, who got dominated by Miami, who got dominated by Tennessee.
It’s also worth noting that Tennessee and Miami lost to the same team, both to Florida. And unlike anybody else we named, Tennessee’s loss to Florida was on the road by only one score.
So why is Tennessee No. 4? It’s those two ties along with that loss. But let’s break this down. Tennessee played in the toughest conference that year (yes, the SEC led in ranked teams at the end of the season). They faced five ranked teams when they played them. In their two ties, one was to the eventual Pac-10 champ UCLA Bruins. UCLA had two late touchdowns and two late two-point conversions for the tie.
By the way, UCLA thrashed the Iowa Hawkeyes in the Rose Bowl that year, and Iowa beat the Michigan Wolverines, the only other team to finish ahead of the Vols. The other tie, to the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, came the direct week after the Vols lost their star quarterback, Tony Robinson, for the year. They just needed time to groom Daryl Dickey, and it resulted in a tie.
If you employ strength of schedule, circular logic and the actual production, the Vols could definitely get a share of the national title this year. It wouldn’t be crazy when you look at how other schools claim them.