Season-Opening Loss Doesn’t Spell Doom for Vols

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    Photo by Anne Newman/RTI

    Tennessee not only lost their season opener to No. 17 West Virginia on Saturday; they got blown out to start the 2018 season. The Mountaineers used a career day by quarterback Will Grier to race past the Vols 40-14 to start the season. And that blowout loss has a lot of Vol fans predicting doom and gloom for Tennessee this year.

    But history shows that a loss to start the season does’t always dictate the rest of the year for the Vols.

    Since the start of the 1980 season, the Vols have lost nine season openers including this year’s contest. Of those previous eight instances, Tennessee went on to have a winning season in five of those years and even ended up winning the SEC East in 2007 after starting the year with a loss to No. 12 California.

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    Of those nine season-opening losses (including this year), the Vols dropped their season opener to a ranked opponent seven times. The only times in which Tennessee lost to an unranked opponent since 1980 to start the season were in 2008 (to UCLA), and in 1982 (to Duke).

    The three years in which the Vols finished the season with a losing record after losing their season opener were 2008 (5-7), 1988 (5-6), and 1980 (5-6). In all those instances, the Vols started off the season playing a ranked opponent except for 2008.

    Otherwise, the Vols have gone on to have winning seasons after losing to start their year. And sometimes they’ve even gone on to win at a relatively high level.

    Tennessee went on to win 10 games and the SEC East in 2007 after falling 45-31 to No. 12 Cal to start the year. In 1983, the Vols dropped their season opener 13-3 to No. 10 Pittsburgh and still went 9-3 on the season. Tennessee lost 25-23 to No. 14 UCLA in 1994 but still went 8-4 on the year and finished second in the SEC East.

    The Vols’ 26-point loss to the Mountaineers isn’t even their worst season-opening loss over the last few decades. Tennessee lost 44-0 to No. 10 Georgia in Athens to start the 1981 season, and UT actually ended up going 8-4 that year after that brutal blowout loss.

    Tennessee’s loss to West Virginia put a damper on Vol fans’ moods, but it doesn’t have to spell disaster for the rest of the season. More often than not over the last four decades, the Vols have actually gone on to have fairly successful seasons after dropping their first game.

    Granted, the Vols’ schedule this year is more daunting than most of the other schedules UT faced in any of those other years. But even 2007 shows that Tennessee can fail to be competitive with some of their main rivals in the SEC and still have a successful overall season.

    This year is also different from a lot of the years mentioned in that the Vols have a first-time head coach at the helm and may not have the same talent level that some of the other more successful teams did. In fact, the last UT coach to lose in his debut as head coach was Johnny Majors back in 1977. That year, Tennessee started off the season losing 27-17 to an unranked Cal squad and finished the season just 4-7 overall.

    Of course, Majors would go on to be one of the most successful coaches in UT football history, so even that season has a silver lining in the grand scheme of things.

    The Vols’ loss to start the Jeremy Pruitt era was less than ideal, but it doesn’t mean this season will be a repeat of 2017. History shows UT can overcome this disappointing start and put together a successful year still.

    Here’s who the Vols have lost to in season openers since 1980 and their final season results.

    2008: Lost 27-24 to UCLA (OT), went 5-7
    2007: Lost 45-31 to No. 12 Cal, went 10-4 (won SEC East)
    1994: Lost 25-23 to No. 14 UCLA, went 8-4 (finished 2nd in East)
    1988: Lost 28-17 to No. 12 Georgia, went 5-6
    1983: Lost 13-3 to No. 10 Pitt, went 9-3
    1982: Lost 25-24 to Duke, went 6-5-1
    1981: Lost 44-0 to No. 10 Georgia, went 8-4
    1980: Lost 16-15 to No. 16 Georgia, went 5-6



    Nathanael Rutherford
    Nathanael Rutherford is the managing editor and social media manager for Rocky Top Insider. Nathanael graduated from the University of Tennessee and cultivated a passion for the Vols while growing up in Knoxville a mere 10 minutes from Neyland Stadium. He's been a part of the RTI team since November of 2015 and has been the editor of RTI since June of 2017. If he's not talking or writing about Tennessee athletics, he's probably talking about Star Wars.