5. 1996: 10-2 (7-1)
Starting quarterback: Peyton Manning
W Citrus Bowl; No. 9 AP and Coaches
Now we go to Tennessee football at its peak. The Vols’ memorable four-year run at the height of Phillip Fulmer’s career, from 1995 to 1998, had one season in particular in which expectations were highest. That was this year.
Coming off an 11-1 season with their only loss to the Florida Gators, UT returned junior quarterback Peyton Manning, and Heisman talk was abound with a preseason No. 2 ranking. This would be the year the Vols got over the hump, and the expansion of the stadium to be the largest in the nation only made things more exciting.
Manning and co. got off to a 2-0 start, and UF came to town again. This was when reality set in…again. The Vols fell behind 35-0 in the first 20 minutes and committed six first-half turnovers. They regrouped and came back to make it 35-29 in the second half, but it was too late. The loss was devastating, as it meant there was no way UT could outperform its 1995 season.
Still, they regrouped and got on a winning streak, highlighted by a second straight win over Alabama with the Tide undefeated and in the top 10. But the week after Florida clinched the SEC East and the Vols knew they would do no better, they suffered a stunning loss to the eventual 4-7 Memphis Tigers, their only loss ever to that team.
What was clear in 1996 was that the Vols had issues replacing an elite offensive line class that left after 1995. Still, Manning regrouped the Vols to help them win out, and they did just that. In a return to the Citrus Bowl, they dominated the Northwestern Wildcats as Manning set a bowl game record with 408 passing yards.
A 10-2 record and top 10 finish was ironically a disappointment. And it was the worst year in Fulmer’s epic four-year run despite being the one with highest expectations. But in a vacuum, it’s still one of the best UT seasons ever with a junior quarterback, so it belongs at No. 5.