Ever since the 2016 season ended, one of the main topics of conversation online, on radio, and in other forums of discussion has been about Tennessee’s expectations as a football program. What are fair expectations for the Vols? Are some fans too unrealistic with their beliefs? Or are others too lenient given the Vols’ past?
I decided to dive into the debate about expectations by looking at Tennessee’s history as a football program. More specifically, I researched the Vols’ successes and failures as a program from the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, and now. That’s nearly 60 years’ worth of data I compiled in order to figure out just what kind of program Tennessee is.
It’s always hard to define when the “modern era” of college football begins. But I believe beginning my research in the 1960s during the Bowen Wyatt and Doug Dickey eras is as good a place to start as any for Tennessee, and that gives me 57 years’ worth of information to work with. That’s enough to compile reasonable expectations for the Vols over the years.
I took a look at Tennessee’s wins and losses from each decade from the 1960s till now to see what the winning percentage and average win/loss record was in those eras. The results, when they stand alone, are somewhat surprising.
The Vols have a tradition of winning, but that tradition has taken a hit over the last decade or so. But even before the 1990s, the Vols had a different tradition than they do now.
Here is Tennessee’s record by decade over the last six decades:
1960s: 67-32-6 (.638)
1970s: 75-39-3 (.641)
1980s: 77-37-5 (.647)
1990s: 99-22-2 (.805)
2000s: 83-44 (.654)
2010-now: 46-42 (.523)
Total (57 years): 447-216-16 (.658)
Tennessee’s average win/loss record over the last 57 years comes out to 7.8 wins, 3.8 losses, and .3 ties. Obviously, there are no more ties in college football, so by rounding up and eliminating that, the Vols’ average record over the last six decades is 8-4.
On the surface, this may seem like Butch Jones’ back-to-back 9-4 seasons are actually right at expectations for Tennessee when it comes to their historical record. But these numbers are only in a vacuum; they don’t tell the whole story about what Tennessee’s expectations should be. To get that, you need to look at other programs’ records in the same span.
So that’s exactly what I did. I took a look at Alabama, Florida, and Georgia, Tennessee’s three biggest rivals, during the same 57 years to see how the Vols compared to them.
Here are the results for Alabama, Florida, and Georgia:
1960s: 90-16-14 (.818)
1970s: 103-16-1 (.858)
1980s: 85-33-2 (.708)
1990s: 91-31-1 (.740)
2000s: 79-48 (.622)
2010-now: 86-11 (.887)
Total (57 years): 534-155-8 (.766)
1960s: 70-31-4 (.667)
1970s: 58-53-3 (.509)
1980s: 76-38-3 (.650)
1990s: 102-22-1 (.816)
2000s: 100-30 (.769)
2010-now: 56-34 (.622)
Total (57 years): 462-208-11 (.678)
1960s: 59-38-9 (.557)
1970s: 75-38-5 (.636)
1980s: 89-27-4 (.742)
1990s: 72-49-1 (.590)
2000s: 98-31 (.760)
2010-now: 64-29 (.688)
Total (57 years): 457-212-19 (.664)
What immediately stands out is that Alabama has been a juggernaut for almost the entire last 57 years. They’re the only one of these four teams without a decade with a sub-60 percent winning percentage. What also stands out is that Georgia and Florida both have extremely similar overall records to Tennessee. Florida’s average win/loss record over the last six decades is 8.1-3.7 while Georgia’s is 8-3.7. Those round to, once again, 8-4. Just like Tennessee, the Gators and Bulldogs average out to an 8-4 record in modern history.
So does this mean Tennessee, Florida, and Georgia fans should all be happy with 8-4 seasons whenever they happen? No, not at all.
The data for the last 57 years shows that an 8-4 record is the baseline for the Vols, not the expectation. Before the 1990s, Tennessee football had a different set of expectations. The Vols were winning around 66 percent of their games before the 90s. But then Tennessee’s best decade to date happened, and the expectations rightfully changed accordingly.
Another point that stands out from the data is that Tennessee’s worst decade has, obviously, been the most recent one. But that’s noteworthy because it’s by far the most recent of the four teams’ down eras. Florida, Georgia, and especially Alabama have all had much more recent success than Tennessee.
Florida’s worst era was back in the 1970s, Georgia’s was in the 1990s, and Alabama’s was in the early 2000s. Tennessee is still currently in the midst of their worst era. That alone is enough to skew expectations because fans still have one of the worst runs in Tennessee history fresh in their memory. Some fans, understandably so, are just happy to be out of that dark era.
But Tennessee is more than just it’s worst decade. The Vols have a winning tradition that rivals their two main divisional opponents, Florida and Georgia. Going 8-4 in a season isn’t a disaster for Tennessee, but it shouldn’t be the ceiling either.
The Vols have a proud history of winning at a high level in college football. That tradition has taken a hit as of late, but it doesn’t change Tennessee’s legacy as a winning program.