Sports Illustrated made 15 top 10 lists, some including Tennessee football, for college football’s 150th year. Here’s what they did with the Volunteers.
Tennessee football made five of 15 top 10 lists on SI’s page celebrating the 150th anniversary of college football. Given the program’s history, it was certainly going to receive recognition with such a celebration.
The Vols were ranked the No. 9 greatest program of all time. Neyland Stadium was ranked the No. 8 greatest venue of all time. Smokey was the No. 10 greatest mascot of all time. Knoxville is the No. 8 greatest college town of all time. And Rocky Top, which isn’t even UT’s fight song, was still ranked the No. 3 greatest fight song of all time.
So Tennessee football made some impressive lists. But just how accurate was it? Well, in some cases Sports Illustrated was completely unfair to the Vols. In others, though, they may have been a bit too fair.
For starters, Rocky Top was a very fair assessment. Despite not being UT’s official fight song, it’s the most recognizable song in the SEC. And it didn’t even take hold until the 1970s. Meanwhile, Neyland Stadium at least made the top 10 in venues. It probably should have been higher given its size and checkerboard end zones. But at least it was listed. The same is true for Smokey.
Also, as a top 10 program, it was fair to have the Vols on there. Despite them falling dramatically over the past 20 years, including now having fewer AP national championships than the Florida Gators and Clemson Tigers, they are still top 10 all time in wins, win percentage and bowl wins and top 5 all time in bowl game appearances.
It was also fair to leave former Vols off lists of greatest upsets, greatest games, greatest individual performances, greatest rivalries, greatest individual seasons, greatest helmets, greatest college town eats and greatest bowl games. Two of those, helmets and town eats, are subjective anyway.
You can’t really argue for any individual standout season compared to the ones on there. Yes, UT could have numerous games in different categories qualify, but none of those are clear-cut top 10 of all time. The strongest case would be Tee Martin’s performance in 1998 against the South Carolina Gamecocks for greatest performances.
However, one area in which Tennessee football never should have been left out was top 10 coaches of all time. Robert Neyland should have been on there somewhere. He’s on the Mt. Rushmore of SEC coaches and owned Bear Bryant in the 1940s and early 1950s.
Neyland led the Vols to four national championships and five SEC Championships along with two other Southern Conference Championships. But what really should have put him on the list is the fact that he did all of this in three separate stints, having to leave twice due to his military service. That distinction alone should have put him on there, even above Bobby Bowden.
Another list the Vols could have made is greatest traditions. The Vol Walk, Running Through the T, and even the checkerboard end zones are all unique to Rocky Top. They stand above the ridiculous turnover chain that the Miami Hurricanes have, which never should have made that list.
Now, one unpopular opinion is Knoxville as a college town. Sorry Vol Nation. It’s not a top 10 college town. Knoxville is one of the nicest cities that has a college football team in the nation. If you’re ranking cities, it may be in the top.
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Specifically as a college town, however, it’s a different story. Knoxville can sell where it hosted the World’s Fair, the Tennessee River, the Great Smoky Mountains, and Market Square, the beautiful setting in and around downtown, with beautiful 19th century architecture, great restaurants and nightlife and a great cultural center like the Tennessee Theatre.
However, downtown is a solid distance away from campus. The best places to visit the Smoky Mountains in East Tennessee are outside of Knoxville. And those are two of the most notable parts of the city. Only Neyland Stadium being on the Tennessee River, which is an amazing setting, would really count as part of the Tennessee football college scene.
It’s not like Athens, Ga., which has an amazing food, nightlife and arts scene all within blocks of the stadium. Knoxville is way nicer than Tuscaloosa, Ala., but Tuscaloosa much better incorporates its local scene with the campus.
Again, this is not a knock on Knoxville as a city. It’s a great place to be, and it’s even better during football season. But specifically as a college town, which means incorporating all of this with the major university there, in this case Tennessee and its relation to Tennessee football, it’s a different story. The Strip is the closest thing to campus, and nobody sells it as a stop in Knoxville.
So the Vols should have been on a few extra lists, and they were on one they didn’t belong. But overall, they clearly earned a good bit of respect from SI. Hey, making it onto five lists has to count for something.