During the height of the Phillip Fulmer years, if there was talk about a 12-team College Football Playoff, the assumption was that Tennessee football would be in it every year. In fact, the Vols likely would have been in it every year except for three from 1989 to 2003.
However, recent talk of expanding the playoff to 12 teams hasn’t even been a blip on the radar of the Vols. There’s a good reason for that as well. Even with that expansion, they wouldn’t have been in contention for it in a long time.
The last regular season that came to an end in which Tennessee football would have had a shot at the playoff was 2007, which was also the last year they played for the SEC Championship. Since then, only once, in 2016, would they have even been playing in November with a chance to reach a 12-team playoff.
It gets even worse, though. The last time the Vols actually would have made the playoff is 2003. Sure, they finished in the top 12 in 2007, but after the conference championship games, they were no higher than No. 15 in any poll, and they would have had to be one of the top six at-large teams based on the current proposed playoff formula.
This is all a far cry from where they were just a few years before 2007. From 1989 to 2003, the Vols not only would have been in contention at the end of all but two regular season (2000 and 2002), but they may have made it in all but four regular seasons (1992, 1994, 2000 and 2002). They also would have been in contention in 2004 leading up to the SEC title game.
Remember, the Vols were in the top 10 every year from 1995 to 1999 when the bowl selections came out. They would have clearly made it every year during that time plus 2001. This would have been a perennial playoff program.
Simply put, the fall of Tennessee football is incredible, and it’s made more obvious with the lack of talk about the effect expanding the playoff would have on the Vols. Nobody saw this coming dating back to 2008.
In the 1990s and even the early to mid-2000s, UT not making a 12-team playoff was the equivalent of the Duke Blue Devils or Kentucky Wildcats missing the 64-team NCAA Tournament. Now the opposite is almost true.
Josh Heupel has a lot of work to do to rebuild Tennessee football. The first step is just getting back to making a bowl game, and then it’s to being competitive with some of the rivals. Eventually, though, the goal of the program should be to at least be in contention for a 12-team playoff, assuming it does expand, in November at some point.