3. 1988: 5-6 (3-4)
While 1976 ended one era and 2008 ended the era that followed, 1988 was the final year before ushering in the peak part of the era that came after 1976 for Tennessee football. Johnny Majors finally had UT on track to take it to the next level.
The Vols had enjoyed eight straight winning seasons, won the SEC and Sugar Bowl in 1985 and finished 10-2-1 in 1987. So with the arrival of 1988, he finally had a ton of talent on the team to keep the program on solid ground.
Keith DeLong and Jeff Francis were the leaders, both future NFL Draft picks. But there were also stars like Reggie Cobb, Kent Elmore, Tracy Hayworth, Eric Still and Marion Hobby in the group. Meanwhile, future NFL stars like Antone Davis, Alvin Harper and Anthony Morgan were already contributors for Majors.
One hurdle remained, though. That hurdle was youth. The Vols were still a program that rebuilt and didn’t reload, and this was the final year they’d have to rebuild. After all, DeLong and Francis were the only upper-classmen.
As a result, UT started the year 0-6. Five of those losses were to teams who would finish in the top 25 teams: the Georgia Bulldogs, LSU Tigers, Auburn Tigers, Washington State Cougars and Alabama Crimson Tide. LSU and Auburn would share the SEC title. Meanwhile, they also lost to the Duke Blue Devils, who won seven games under Steve Spurrier.
So the schedule combined with the youth is why the elite talent couldn’t reach a bowl. However, after the Alabama loss, they came together and took advantage of a soft back-end, winning their final five games to finish 5-6. The Vols then turned it around to win back to back SEC titles in 1989 and 1990, and the national program was restored.