SEC Championship; No. 4 AP and Coaches; W Sugar Bowl
One of the most beloved teams in Tennessee football history, the Sugar Vols were an underdog story from the start. Entering 1985, the program hadn’t won an SEC Championship in 16 seasons. Their last top five finish was the season we had on the slide before this, which meant they hadn’t had one in 15 seasons.
On top of that, they hadn’t finished ranked in 11 seasons, dating back to 1974, Condredge Holloway’s last year. Johnny Majors had overseen some solid seasons in his rebuilding project in the early 1980s, but entering his ninth year, he had still not accomplished much.
So it was no surprise that despite Tony Robinson coming back at quarterback and the Vols coming off a 7-4-1 season, they would not enter 1985 in the preseason AP or Coaches’ Polls. They would have to prove it. And prove it they would.
A tie against the No. 10 ranked UCLA Bruins, in which the Vols blew a 16-point lead late, was the first sign that this program was back. But two weeks later, they dominated Bo Jackson and the No. 1 ranked Auburn Tigers 38-20. That was the splash game to get them into the rankings.
After a close win over the Wake Forest Demon Deacons and a loss to the Florida Gators on the road, though, this team was hanging onto a ranking by a thread at 2-1-2. But then they beat the No. 15 ranked Alabama Crimson Tide on the road. The next game, they tied the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets 6-6 after Daryl Dickey had to replace Robinson, who was lost for the season.
Sitting at 3-1-2 at this point, they were once again barely in the rankings. But the schedule was easy the rest of the way, and the Vols ran the table. By the final game of the season against the Vanderbilt Commodores, they were in the top 10 for the first time since 1973 and had a chance to win the SEC title. They did just that with a victory.
But the story of the season came in the Sugar Bowl. The Miami Hurricanes were playing for a national title and heavily favored over UT. But Majors’s opportunistic defense employed pressure all night and dominated them 35-7. Because of that, they finished 9-1-2 and in the top 5, ranked No. 4 in both major polls despite starting unranked.
Elite players like Chris White, Tim McGee, Harry Galbreath and Dickey himself were just a few of the overachievers on this team. It was a legendary Cinderella story that would only be surpassed by the 1998 national championship team 13 years later.