What History Says About Vols Bouncing Back after Saturday’s Loss

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    Photo by Jake Nichols/RTI

    Saturday’s loss to Georgia State wasn’t the first time Tennessee has lost to a non-Power Five school in football. It wasn’t the first time the Vols lost their season opener, either. So how have those past Vol squads fared when they’ve faced the same circumstances the 2019 Vols do?

    Tennessee began their 2019 season on possibly the most disheartening note they could’ve over the weekend. The Vols fell 38-30 to Georgia State, a Sun Belt opponent, on Saturday afternoon, marking their first loss to a non-Power Five team since 2008. It was Tennessee’s first loss to a Sun Belt opponent ever, and it marked the first time the Vols had lost a season opener in back-to-back seasons since 2007 and 2008. It also made head coach Jeremy Pruitt the first UT head coach to lose his first two season openers of his Tennessee career since Johnny Majors in 1977 and 1978.

    Vol fans are assuming the worst about the Vols’ 2019 season after the loss to Georgia State, but does history say that should be the case? How have other Tennessee teams done when they’ve lost to non-Power Five teams or when they’ve lost season openers?

    Let’s take a look.

    Losing to Non-Power Five Schools

    Saturday’s loss to Georgia State marked the seventh time over the last 65 years that Tennessee has lost to a non-Power Five school or an Independent (excluding Notre Dame). The past six times the Vols have lost to non-Power Five programs have yielded mixed results, but it usually led to — not surprisingly — a disappointing season.

    In 1953, Tennessee lost 33-19 to Houston to end the season. That Houston squad finished 4-4-1 and played in the Missouri Valley Conference. Houston was also just in their eighth season of collegiate football. In that regard, that loss is fairly comparable to the Vols’ loss to Georgia State on Saturday, though Houston had gone to a bowl game two seasons prior and finished ranked in the Coaches Poll the previous year.

    That Tennessee team finished the 1953 season with a 6-4-1 record.

    In 1958, the Vols suffered one of, if not the, worst loss in school history. The Georgia State loss is in the conversation for that title, but Tennessee’s loss to Chattanooga in 1958 is one of the few that would give Saturday’s loss a run for its money.

    Tennessee fell 14-6 to Chattanooga on November 8th in Knoxville in 1958. The Vols stumbled to a 4-6 record that season, while Chattanooga finished with a 5-5 mark. Chattanooga was an Independent at the time, but now they’re an FCS football program.

    Fast forward to 1975, and Tennessee suffered another historically bad loss that some would consider the worst in school history. Bill Battle’s Vols dropped an October 25th contest to North Texas State (now just North Texas) by a score of 21-14 in Neyland Stadium. North Texas State went 7-4 that season, a year after going 2-7-2 in 1974. That’s comparable to Georgia State this past Saturday, as the Panthers went 2-10 in 2018 before taking on the Vols in 2019.

    Despite losing to Vanderbilt in the regular season finale a month later, the Vols would still end up making a bowl game that season, beating Hawaii and finishing 7-5.

    The 1986 Vols lost 25-21 to Army on October 11th in Knoxville. That loss dropped Tennessee to 2-3 overall, and UT would fall to 2-5 on the year before winning out and finishing 7-5 on the year. The Vols defeated Minnesota in the Liberty Bowl to end the season. Army, meanwhile, finished the year 6-5.

    In 1996, one of Tennessee’s most infamous losses occurred. The No. 6 Vols led by Peyton Manning lost 21-17 to the Memphis Tigers in Memphis. That Tigers squad went 3-8 the previous season, and they finished the 1996 campaign with a 4-7 record, their first in the Conference USA.

    The Vols, meanwhile, went on to trounce Arkansas and Kentucky and defeated Vanderbilt to get to the Citrus Bowl, where they routed No. 11 Northwestern. But that loss cost Tennessee a chance at a better bowl or potentially figuring into the national title conversation. Tennessee finished 10-2 that season.

    Lastly, Tennessee’s most recent loss to a non-Power Five school before this past Saturday was to Wyoming in 2008. The Vols were handed a 13-7 loss to Wyoming in Knoxville for homecoming, and the team looked disinterested and uninspired thanks to the news of head coach Phillip Fulmer’s imminent firing. Tennessee would finish 5-7 on the year, and Fulmer was ousted at the end of the season. Wyoming finished 4-8 overall after going 5-7 in 2007.

    To recap:

    • 1953 – L to Houston (finished 6-4-1)
    • 1958 – L to Chattanooga (finished 4-6)
    • 1975 – L to North Texas State (finished 7-5)
    • 1986 – L to Army (finished 7-5)
    • 1996 – L to Memphis (finished 10-2)
    • 2008 – L to Wyoming (finished 5-7)

    Losing Season Openers

    Tennessee’s loss to Georgia State this past Saturday was the 16th time over the last 60 years that they’ve fallen in their season opener. It marked the first time ever that UT has lost to a non-Power Five team in their season opener, and it’s just the sixth time in the last six decades the Vols have lost to an unranked team to start the season.

    The Vols’ previous six season-opening losses were to teams that began the year in the top 25 of the AP Poll. Dating back to 1983, all six of Tennessee’s season-opening losses came against ranked opponents. Before Saturday, the last time Tennessee lost a season opener against an unranked squad was in 1982 to Duke. The Vols finished 6-5-1 that season.

    There’s only been once where Tennessee has lost a season opener and gone on to win 10 games in a season, and only five of the previous 15 times that UT lost a season opener did they go on to win at least eight games in a season.

    When losing to an unranked team to start the year, Tennessee has usually fared pretty poorly.

    As previously mentioned, that 1982 team finished 6-5-1 after losing to Duke to start the year. In 1977, Johnny Majors’ first Tennessee team fell to California 27-17 in Neyland Stadium. That team finished the year an abysmal 4-7. The previous season, the Vols started off the year with a 21-18 loss to Duke in Knoxville to kick off Bill Battle’s final season as head coach. The 1976 Tennessee team would go 6-5.

    In 1961, the Vols started out the season with a 24-21 loss to an unranked Auburn team in Knoxville. Tennessee would go on to finish 6-4 on the year. The next season, head coach Bowden Wyatt’s last, would see UT lose again to Auburn to start the year. This time, the Tigers prevailed 22-21, and Tennessee would finish just 4-6.

    Here’s a full look at Tennessee’s season-opening losses over the last 60 years:

    • 2018 – L to No. 17 West Virginia (finished 5-7)
    • 2008 – L to No. 18 UCLA (finished 5-7)
    • 2007 – L to No. 12 California (finished 10-4)
    • 1994 – L to No. 14 UCLA (finished 8-4)
    • 1988 – L to No. 12 Georgia (finished 5-6)
    • 1983 – L to No. 10 Pittsburgh (finished 9-3)
    • 1982 – L to Duke (finished 6-5-1)
    • 1981 – L to No. 10 Georgia (finished 8-4)
    • 1980 – L to No. 16 Georgia (finished 5-6)
    • 1978 – L to No. 9 UCLA (finished 5-5-1)
    • 1977 – L to California (finished 4-7)
    • 1976 – L to Duke (finished 6-5)
    • 1967 – L to No. 8 UCLA (finished 9-2)
    • 1962 – L to Auburn (finished 4-6)
    • 1961 – L to Auburn (finished 6-4)
    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.