9-4 (5-3); Outback Bowl berth; No. 25 AP; No. 23 Coaches
2005 record: 5-6 (3-5)
If anybody ever had any questions as to how great of on offensive mind David Cutcliffe truly is, this season would have put that to rest. In 2005, Tennessee football went from a preseason No. 3 ranking to their first losing season in 17 years.
The problem from the start was a horrendous offense. No receiver emerged as a go-to guy, the offensive line remained out of shape, and Erik Ainge had not progressed from his freshman year. He split time all year with senior Rick Clausen, and the result was disastrous.
Because of that, Randy Sanders resigned as offensive coordinator. Cutcliffe, who was fired by the Ole Miss Rebels as head coach in 2004, returned to Rocky Top as an offensive coordinator, a role he had from 1993 to 1998.
Immediately, there was a turnaround. Ainge set a school record for completion percentage. Robert Meachem set a school record for receiving yards. The Vols opened the year by jumping out to a 35-0 lead over the Cal Golden Bears, who were in the top 10 at the time.
They suffered a heartbreaking 21-20 loss to the Florida Gators early, but after that they reeled off five straight wins, including key road wins over the Georgia Bulldogs and South Carolina Gamecocks and a home win over the Alabama Crimson Tide. A late injury to Ainge resulted in two heartbreaking losses to the LSU Tigers and Arkansas Razorbacks.
But after beating the Vanderbilt Commodores and Kentucky Wildcats, they had gone from 5-6 to 9-3. An Outback Bowl loss to the Penn State Nittany Lions was a painful end to the year, but this was still a dramatic turnaround from the previous year.