No. 7 AP, No. 8 Coaches; Orange Bowl berth
Arguably the most talented Tennessee football team ever, the Vols had a who’s who of future NFL stars on this list. Peyton Manning at quarterback Jamal Lewis at running back, Leonard Little at defensive end were just a few names.
But Terry Fair, Jonathan Brown, Trey Teague, Marcus Nash, Peerless Price, Al Wilson, Andy McCullough, Corey Gaines, Shawn Bryson, Steve Johnson and Corey Terry were all future NFL Draft picks who contributed regularly to this team. Simply put, these guys were loaded.
It’s also worth noting there were six teams in the league to finish in the top 25, and the Vols played four of the other five throughout the year, beating three of them. So their quality victories were pretty high as well.
Even in out-of-conference games, UT beat the UCLA Bruins, who would finish in the top 10, and the Southern Miss Golden Eagles, who won the Conference USA and finished in the top 25. They had a solid run.
What keeps them down here, then? Well, blemishes on a conference record are always a knock, and we have to factor that in. Another issue is how Manning and co. finished the season en route to winning the SEC Championship.
The Florida Gators beat them pretty easily in both teams’ SEC opener. After the Vols got the break of the century with UF getting upset by the LSU Tigers and blown out by the Georgia Bulldogs, UT kept suffering scares every week.
They trailed at one point in all of their final five regular season games. Four were against SEC teams in the South Carolina Gamecocks, Arkansas Razorbacks, Kentucky Wildcats and Vanderbilt Commodores. All of them finished with losing records. UT also beat two of them, Arkansas and Vandy, by only one score.
Then there was the SEC Championship game against the Auburn Tigers. Auburn was a good team under Terry Bowden, to be fair. But the Vols had to come back and win, and they barely held on 30-29. Combine that with their 42-17 Orange Bowl loss to the Nebraska Cornhuskers, and these stumbles keep this team from being a bit higher.