5. 1976: 6-5 (2-4)
It was Tennessee football’s last team before entering a new era. This team also showed why the Vols needed to enter a new era. They were behind on scheme, in facilities and their approach to the sport as a whole in Bill Battle’s last year on the job.
As a result, the steady downward decline that began in the mid-1970s under him hit rock bottom, which had already shown with the loss of Condredge Holloway. The year before, his first year without Holloway, the Vols went 7-5, lost to North Texas State and missed out on their first bowl appearance or top 25 finish in a decade.
This year, however, they stumbled to 6-5. The crazy part, though, is that this team was incredibly talented. Four Vols from this group, Stanley Morgan, Larry Seivers, Mickey Marvin and Andy Spiva went to the NFL, with Morgan making multiple Pro Bowl appearances and Marvin winning two Super Bowls. Morgan and Seivers were the original members of what became Wide Receiver U.
Meanwhile, there was plenty of future NFL talent contributing on this team, including Craig Colquitt at punter and Pat Ryan. Robert Shaw, Jeff Moore and Kelsey Finch were also all key contributors as sophomores and eventually made the pros themselves.
Simply put, there was too much talent for this team to go 6-5. Stumbling like that is what lured Johnny Majors to Knoxville the next year, and his rebuilding process resulted in a long period at the bottom for the Vols, starting with a 4-7 record in 1977.