Tennessee football is looking to return to prominence under Jeremy Pruitt. But the first step for the Volunteers has to be winning back the state.
One of the most embarrassing things that happened to Tennessee football when the Vols were at their peak under Peyton Manning was losing to the Memphis Tigers 21-17. It happened in 1996 and remains their only loss to the program ever.
Memphis has never forgotten it. But the trolling that came from West Tennessee wasn’t even the worst part. What hurt the most was Steve Spurrier’s trolling of the Vols after the Florida Gators winning the national title that year. Everybody remembers him saying you can’t spell Citrus without UT and that Manning returned in 1997 to be a three-time Citrus Bowl MVP.
However, there was also a running joke in the Florida community about UT not even winning the state championship in 1996 when their goal was the national title. It was beyond embarrassing, but not as embarrassing as what would come nine years later.
In 2005, Tennessee football entered the season ranked No. 3 and thinking national title again. They stumbled to a 5-6 season. That year, the Vols lost to the Vanderbilt Commodores for the first time in program history. Sure, they beat the Memphis Tigers. But Memphis made a bowl that year and was without its star player, DeAngelo Williams, in the game at UT while only losing 20-16.
So by any stretch, Rocky Top was the third or fourth best team in the state that year. It was something they never wanted to replicate. Fast-forward to nearly 15 years later, though, and the Vols are in a worse situation.
UT hasn’t played Memphis since 2010, but the Tigers are coming off back to back appearances in AAC Championship games and were a play away from being the top Group of Five team in 2017. During that same time, the Vols have gone 4-8 and 5-7 with two different head coaches. Memphis lost Justin Fuente and easily transitioned to Mike Norvell.
Meanwhile, Vanderbilt has beaten the Vols three straight years, finishing ahead of them in SEC play in each of the past two years. So by any reasonable stretch of the imagination, Tennessee football has been the third best team in the state for each of the past two years.
By the way, that doesn’t even count the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders. Rick Stockstill has taken them to four straight bowl games, and last year they played for the C-USA Championship. It’s probably safe to say the Vols are slightly better than them, but they are in a fight to avoid being the worst team in the state.
CBS Sports has noted as much, which is why it declared Memphis the best college football team in the state. It gave credit to Vandy and the Vols and the programs Derek Mason and Jeremy Pruitt are building, but the fact is for right now Memphis stands above both.
So as Pruitt tries to turn around Tennessee football, the first step is winning back the state. There is no reason for the Vols not to be the best team in the state of Tennessee. The landscape of college football is such that there’s not room for multiple powerhouse teams in this state, and UT is the only one with the infrastructure to build such a program.
Last year, the Vols at least claimed men’s basketball. But they lost four of their five starters, and the Tigers have the top-ranked recruiting class under Penny Hardaway. Meanwhile, they return everybody in football, so this is Norvell’s first team in Memphis that is fully experienced and made up of the players he picked to run his system. That’s a dangerous combination.
If the Volsstruggle again this year while the Tigers have an elite season, there might be a selling point to recruits about Memphis being a program on the rise, somewhat of a UCF type. All those AAC programs are doing that to position themselves to be in power conferences in the future. Memphis will have a great selling point with another great season.
It could even be worse if Vanderbilt beats the Vols again. Then Mason can sell ownership of the Vols and academics to recruits while Memphis can sell being the program of the future. Simply put, the pressure is on Tennessee football more than ever to make sure people remember what the state institution is.