Overreacting to the first weekend of college football – it’s just what we do.
So it’s natural for there to be a lot of concern about the Vols’ sloppy, much-closer-than-expected overtime win over Appalachian State. Tennessee certainly didn’t look like the No. 9 team in the country on Thursday evening.
But how much can we really learn from the opener?
I went back to the last 11 openers for the Vols – choosing that number because it stretched back to 2005 (the last time UT was in the top 10 to start the season) – to see what the opener did or didn’t tell us about those years.
2005: Tennessee beats UAB 17-10
What we learned: This was certainly a sign of things to come. The Vols stumbled their way through the opener against a mediocre Conference USA team. Tennessee went on to finish 5-6 after starting the season ranked No. 3.
2006: Tennessee beats California 35-18
What we learned: Tennessee rolled out of the gates with a convincing win over No. 9 California, a team loaded with NFL talent such as running back Marshawn Lynch. While there were a few setbacks over the course of a 9-4 season, this win was the start of the mini-resurgence for UT that led to a top-25 finish in 2006 and an SEC East title in 2007.
2007: Tennessee loses at California 45-31
What we learned: This loss in Berkeley set the stage for a season that saw UT get dominated by rivals Florida and Alabama, but then run the table down the stretch to make it to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game. Cal went on to have a disappointing 7-6 year, so it’s fair to say that UT’s season turned out better than that opener would’ve led you to believe.
2008: Tennessee loses at UCLA 27-24
What we learned: This was the beginning of the end for Phillip Fulmer at UT. The favored Vols went on the road and laid an egg against a subpar UCLA team that went on to only win four games. The UT offense stalled in the second half, while the Bruins made halftime adjustments on offense and put enough points on the board to get the surprising win. The Vols went on to have a disappointing 5-7 season that often looked like this UCLA game.
2009: Tennessee beats Western Kentucky 63-7
What we learned: This win was representative of the brief Lane Kiffin era at UT. It was flashy as the Vols rolled up 63 points, but it didn’t have much substance. WKU was arguably the worst team in the nation that year, finishing with an 0-12 mark. The Vols went on to have a decent 7-6 season before Kiffin bolted for Southern California.
2010: Tennessee beats Tennessee-Martin 50-0
What we learned: Very little. UT-Martin was an average FCS team that even Derek Dooley could roll over. The Vols went on to have a 6-7 season – the best of the Dooley era.
2011: Tennessee beats Montana 42-16
What we learned: Tennessee’s explosive offense was on display against a quality FCS team. Tyler Bray threw for just under 300 yards and receivers Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers each hit triple digits in receiving yards. Hunter went down a few weeks later, and the Vols never had the same pop on offense on their way to a disappointing 5-7 season.
2012: Tennessee beats NC State 35-21 in Atlanta
What we learned: This was the most deceptive opener in recent UT history. Tennessee, which had some top-25 expectations in 2012, dominated a decent NC State team in the opener in Atlanta. The offense – spearheaded by Bray, Cordarrelle Patterson and Hunter – was dominant, and the new defense under Sal Sunseri showed early signs of promise. While the offense remained potent all year, the defense was fool’s gold. Sunseri ended up leading one of the worst units in UT history as the Vols again went 5-7, leading to Dooley’s departure.
2013: Tennessee beats Austin Peay 45-0
What we learned: The FCS openers just don’t tell very much. Tennessee took care of business in Butch Jones’ debut, but was largely overmatched that season on its way to a third-straight 5-7 campaign.
2014: Tennessee beats Utah State 38-7
What we learned: The Aggies were a trendy upset pick, but Tennessee had no problem in this one, signifying some growth in the program under Jones. The Vols weren’t ready to compete against the three top-10 teams they faced that year, but 2014 was a step in the right direction. The opener was a good indicator of that.
2015: Tennessee beats Bowling Green 59-30 in Nashville
What we learned: The Vols let a talented Bowling Green stick around early, but opened it up in the second half on their way to a 29-point victory against the eventual MAC champs. The Falcons exposed a few Tennessee weaknesses, but UT showed it was becoming more of a force in college football by the end of this one. The Vols went on to compete with everybody on their schedule, but couldn’t finish off most of the big ones in 2015.