Tennessee football: Al Wilson most worthy Vol ever for Hall of Fame

5 Dec 1998: Linebacker Al Wilson #27 of the Tennessse Volunteers stands on a ladder during the SEC Championships against the Mississippi State Bulldogs at the Georgia Dome in Athens, Georgia. Tennessee defeated Mississippi St. 24-14.
5 Dec 1998: Linebacker Al Wilson #27 of the Tennessse Volunteers stands on a ladder during the SEC Championships against the Mississippi State Bulldogs at the Georgia Dome in Athens, Georgia. Tennessee defeated Mississippi St. 24-14. /
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Tennessee football legend Al Wilson is one of three Vols on the 2020 CFB Hall of Fame ballot. He is the most worthy Volunteers player ever.

All three Tennessee football players who made the 2020 College Football Hall of Fame ballot raised eyebrows in different ways. Many questioned how the three Vols were not already in there given their accomplishments.

One was defensive back Bobby Majors. The brother of Johnny Majors, he set an SEC record at the time for interceptions with 10 in 1971, and that’s a school record that still stands. Setting records like that should’ve put him in the Hall of Fame years ago.

Another one was Larry Seivers. He’s the OG of UT becoming Wide Receiver U, and he was a two-time All-American in 1975 and 1976. Earning multiple All-American honors should also be an automatic qualifier for making the Hall of Fame.

From an NCAA perspective, those two would be the most qualified of the three Vols to make the CFB Hall of Fame. But from the perspective of value to Tennessee football, their accomplishments pale in comparison to the third guy on the list: Al Wilson.

Wilson did not set any notable single-season or career records on Rocky Top. He only achieved All-American honors once. But his impact on the Vols and his greatness runs so deep that he is the most worthy UT player of all time to reach the College Football Hall of Fame. Yes, he is the most worthy, even more than Peyton Manning, Reggie White, and Doug Atkins.

Since the SEC integrated, the Vols have one national championship, and it was obviously 1998. Wilson was the heart and soul of that team. Being as important as he was to the greatest team in school history has to count for something.

If we want to start with production, it’s still there. Wilson was an All-American while leading Tennessee football to the national championship. In fact, he was the only one. And he had arguably the greatest defensive performance in school history in the Vols’ most important regular season win that year, forcing three fumbles against the Florida Gators.

But Wilson’s impact goes beyond numbers, and so does the College Football Hall of Fame’s criteria. Leadership qualities and intangibles that exemplify greatness also matter, and nobody showed that more than Wilson in 1998.

Remember, the Vols had just lost Manning to the NFL. They also lost their anchor on defense in Leonard Little. And after losing their career leader in receiving in 1996 in Joey Kent, they lost their single-season leader in receiving in 1997 in Marcus Nash. All of their leaders and anchors were gone.

As the rising senior, Wilson had to be the team guy and raise everybody’s level. He did it by example, moving to inside linebacker, only to up his game. And after losing all that talent, the Vols’ go-to back in Jamal Lewis was lost for the season four games into 1998. So Wilson’s leadership had to come through to hold the team together again.

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Detractors will say Wilson had a ton of help on that team. They will also note that Wilson had to miss a couple of games due to injury. However, that is missing the full story when it comes to this guy. His impact went far beyond the field with this team.

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First off, there was more talent on the 1997 team. But it came up short listening to leaders other than Wilson. There is no way that 1998 team stays together without Wilson holding down the fort. He was the type of leader Phillip Fulmer could never stop raving about.

In fact, Wilson’s emotional leadership is why the Vols were able to hang together and pull out numerous close games that year. Again, you can’t measure these things, but his intangibles outmatched his production, and his production was incredible that season.

The leadership qualities of Wilson’s emerged in the 1997 SEC Championship game, when he gave a fiery locker room speech with the Vols down by double-digits at halftime. They came back in that game to beat the Auburn Tigers 30-29. So with him as the de facto leader of the Vols, the team never failed to win an SEC title, and they won a national title.

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This is why he should have his number retired alongside Manning, White and Atkins. If you want to account for a pro career, well, Wilson was a multi-time Pro Bowl linebacker with the Denver Broncos. So, honestly, what more could a player do? Wilson is the most qualified Tennessee football player ever for the College Football Hall of Fame, and he deserves to get in.