Tennessee football will look to rebound against the BYU Cougars Saturday. The Volunteers did that against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish school 40 years ago.
There’s a bit of precedence for Tennessee football trying to rebound against a Christian school after suffering a horrific upset loss in the midst of rebuilding as a program. So when the BYU Cougars come to town Saturday, they’ll be able to look back on it.
Back in 1979, exactly 40 years ago, Johnny Majors was in his third year on the job. His first team went 4-7, the most losses in program history at the time, and the next year, they went 5-5-1. But his third year may have been the most inconsistent year in UT history.
A 3-0 start included wins over the Boston College Eagles, the Utah Utes and the Auburn Tigers. Ironically, those wins included one over a religious school and one over a school from Utah, and this weekend Tennessee football plays a religious school from Utah. But that’s not what we’re referring to.
Anyway, the Vols got into the top 20 at that point, only to drop out after being upset by the eventually 3-8 Mississippi State Bulldogs. Then they responded with a win over the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets to get back in the top 20, and they stayed there after losing to the No. 1 ranked Alabama Crimson Tide.
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But at 4-2 with only one bad loss, another one arose. UT lost to the Rutgers Scarlet Knights 13-7 in what was supposed to be their homecoming game. Now, that was an 8-3 Rutgers team, but four of their wins came against programs who aren’t currently in FBS. They were Independents and avoided competition at all costs. So they were a bad team, and this was a bad loss.
How did the Vols respond? Well, they hosted a No. 13 ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish team a week later. This was a Notre Dame program that beat them 31-14 the year before in South Bend, so expectations were low.
All the Vols did was dominate. They beat the Irish 40-18 for their first win ever over the private Catholic university. It was the rebound of all rebounds and one worth celebrating. And it got them back in the top 20 for a week until they fell out again after a loss to the Ole Miss Rebels.
Still, that Notre Dame game is something UT can look to for this weekend. The Irish were a 7-4 Independent team that year, not that great, but decent. That is what many of us expect from BYU this year.
And that Saturday 40 years ago was proof that the football gods will sometimes look down on the Vols when they face a religious school if they need a bit of good fortune on their end. As they get set for their first matchup with a private Mormon university, they may need that love again.