10. 2006: 9-4 (5-3)
Starting quarterback: Erik Ainge
Outback Bowl berth; No. 23 Coaches; No. 25 AP
This was a redemption season for Tennessee football. The Vols were easily the most disappointing team in 2005, starting the year ranked No. 3 due to the hype behind Erik Ainge, who won all the key games to deliver them the SEC East in 2004 before suffering a season-ending injury in November.
Ainge returned with the team being more responsive to Rick Clausen, who filled in for Ainge in 2004 and became a favorite of the players. That divide resulted in Phillip Fulmer alternating quarterbacks, wrecking Ainge’s confidence en route to a horrible offensive year, which resulted in a 5-6 season, their first losing season since 1988, and wasted an amazing year on defense.
So in the offseason, Fulmer brought back David Cutcliffe as offensive coordinator. It immediately worked wonders, as Ainge threw four touchdown passes in the opener against the top 10 California Golden Bears to help the Vols win 35-18. A 21-20 loss to the Florida Gators hurt, but Ainge then led UT to huge wins over the Georgia Bulldogs and South Carolina Gamecocks.
By November, UT was 7-1 and in the top 10 again. However, Ainge was hurt for two games, and UT lost both of them, one off a last second drive to the LSU Tigers. Ainge returned and they won their final two but lost their bowl game to finish 9-4.
Still, it was a turnaround, and Ainge was the turnaround story. He set a Vol record for completion percentage, helped Robert Meachem become the single-season leader in receiving yards and carried the Vols as they had no running game all year.