Updated: December 11, 2015
Both the Tennessee Volunteers and Northwestern Wildcats have been playing football since the 1890’s, and both have had their share of successes and failures. Comparing the two programs from a historical standpoint seems appropriate considering the two will be playing each other in the Outback Bowl on January 1st.
There will be plenty of time to talk about this year’s squads in the next three weeks as we all gear up for the bowl match-up. But taking a look back at history to see where both schools stand is a helpful venture to put things in perspective.
Starting from a purely win/loss perspective, it’s clear who has the overall advantage.
The Vols have the ninth-most victories all-time in the NCAA with 819. Tennessee’s 819-371-53 overall record gives them a .680 win percentage, the 12th-highest in all of college football. Conversely, Northwestern has 519 wins and has an overall losing record as a program with a 519-650-44 record.
Northwestern has gone winless six times since 1950. The Vols have never had less than 4 wins in a season in that same span. The Wildcats have also never won more than 10 games in a single season, and their 10-2 record this year is only the fourth time in school history the Wildcats have totaled 10 wins.
Since joining the Big Ten as a charter member in 1896, Northwestern has won the Big Ten conference title a grand total of 8 times and haven’t since 2000. And while the Vols haven’t won the SEC since 1998, they have won the conference 13 times since joining the SEC in 1933. Tennessee also has the 1998 National Championship to their name.
The Vols and Wildcats will be playing each other for the second time in a bowl game, matching up for the first time since the 1996 Citrus Bowl. That game saw the Vols come out on top 48-28, and it’s one of 26 bowl victories in 50 bowl appearances for Tennessee. Northwestern, however, has only won two bowl games in 11 opportunities. Their last victory came in the 2012 Gator Bowl over Mississippi State, and that win ended a 9-game bowl losing streak.
Although the Vols may own the historical edge in wins, neither program has been noticeably more successful than the other over the last decade.
Pat Fitzgerald took over at Northwestern before the 2006 season and has won 70 games and lost 55 including this year’s 10-2 record. The Wildcats have had three losing seasons under Fitzgerald but have also eclipsed nine or more wins three times.
Tennessee has gone 67-56 in that same 10-year span with six losing seasons out of those ten years. Coaching attrition and botched recruiting have led to the drop-off for the Vols, and Pat Fitzgerald deserves credit for bringing stability to Northwestern and leading the Wildcats to the amount of success they’ve had.
But even in arguably Tennessee’s roughest 10-year span in program history, Northwestern has earned just three more total wins in that same period.
Northwestern has had some impressive players to suit up for them, especially when it comes to running backs. Damien Anderson, who played from 1998-2001 for the Wildcats, is the team’s all-time leading rusher with 4,485 rushing yards and 38 touchdowns. Those totals easily top Tennessee’s all-time marks of Travis Henry’s 3,078 and Gene McEver’s 37 career touchdowns.
Tennessee, of course, has had one of the greatest all-time quarterbacks to play for them in Peyton Manning. While at Tennessee from 1994-97, Manning earned several school records, including his 11,201 passing yards and 89 touchdowns. Northwestern’s Brett Basanez, who played from 2002-05, leads the Wildcats in both areas as well, and while his 10,580 career yards aren’t far off Manning’s mark, his school-record 44 passing touchdowns are far behind Tennessee’s best passers.
But it’s also worth noting that Northwestern has quarterback legend Otto Graham to their name as well. Graham played for the Wildcats from 1941-44 and set several passing records at the time while playing for Northwestern. Graham later went on to be elected into the Hall of Fame as a quarterback with the Cleveland Browns. He helped lead the Browns to three NFL titles before the NFL and AFL merger, and finished with 174 passing touchdowns and 44 rushing scores.
Despite Northwestern’s passing numbers being lower than Tennessee’s, they’ve had several high-quality pass catchers to don the purple and white, most notably D’Wayne Bates from 1995-98. Bates caught 210 passes for 3,370 yards and 26 touchdowns in those four seasons, and all are school records for a career. Tennessee’s Joey Kent put up similar numbers, albeit a little less eye-popping, from 1993-96 when he caught 183 passes for 2,814 yards and 25 scores.
While Northwestern has had a number of talented players, the Vols have historically put out a greater volume of them.
Since 1936, the Vols have had 337 players drafted into the NFL, ranking 8th-highest in the NCAA. Of those 337 drafted players, 45 have been taken in the first round of the draft. Northwestern, meanwhile, has only had 175 players drafted and only 8 first round draft selections.
Both Tennessee and Northwestern have clearly had their moments in the sun and have had a number of quality players. But historically the Vols have won more and won more often. The Wildcats have had a better run of late, and they’re a win away from their best win total in school history.
But if Tennessee has anything to say about it, Northwestern’s highest single-season win total will remain at 10 this year.