Tennessee football: Vols 10 greatest seasons with junior starting quarterback

Photo by Andy Lyons /Allsport
Photo by Andy Lyons /Allsport /
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Photo by Rick Stewart/Allsport/Getty Images
Photo by Rick Stewart/Allsport/Getty Images /

3. 1990: 9-2-2 (5-1-1)

Starting quarterback: Andy Kelly

SEC Championship; W Sugar Bowl; No. 8 AP; No. 7 Coaches

We’re now moving onto championship seasons with Tennessee football behind a junior quarterback. And the 1990 season under Johnny Majors and Andy Kelly is remembered as one in which they were two plays away from a national title.

The Vols were coming off an 11-1 season in 1989 and returned Kelly at quarterback as a junior along with superstar running backs Chuck Webb and Tony Thompson, receivers Carl Pickens, Alvin Harper and Anthony Morgan, and offensive linemen Charles McRae and Antone Davis. Second-year offensive coordinator Phillip Fulmer had a ton of hype and lots to work with.

UT opened the year tying the No. 5 ranked Colorado Buffaloes in the Pigskin Classic. A key moment, though, in the second game of the year was Webb tragically suffering a season-ending and eventually career-ending injury. Still, UT made it to 3-0-1.

Then they had a 26-9 lead over the No. 3 ranked Auburn Tigers on the road, and their first bit of heartbreak set in. Auburn came back to tie it in the fourth, and the Vols missed a game-winning field goal from dead center.

At 3-0-2, they then crushed Steve Spurrier’s first No. 9 ranked Florida Gators team 45-3, but then they suffered an upset loss at home 9-6 to the Alabama Crimson Tide. That’s because Bama blocked a game-winning field goal all the way to the other end of the field and then kicked their own. It was Gene Stallings’s first team.

Two games later, Kelly threw an interception in the red zone late as the Vols lost to the No. 1 ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish. They won out after that to finish 8-2-2 and win the SEC, though, which is why this is on the list. After that, they came back to beat the Virginia Cavaliers 23-22 in the Sugar Bowl to finish 9-2-2 and ranked in the top 10.

It remains their last Sugar Bowl appearance. So this is a fondly remembered season. However, Tennessee football was an interception and two missed field goals away from being 12-0-1. Since Colorado and the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets shared the title that year at 11-1-1 and 11-0-1 respectively, UT was insanely close to the title that year.