This past decade was a tough one for Tennessee football. There arguably hasn’t been a worse decade in program history in terms of a win/loss record in a 10-year span, and the amount of turmoil and coaching turnover the Vols experienced also seems unprecedented in UT’s long football history.
Still, it wasn’t all bad for Tennessee, and there were some nice bright spots amidst all the darkness at rock bottom (which it seems the Vols may finally be climbing out of).
Our look back at the last decade of Tennessee sports starts off by looking at Tennessee’s top 10 wins in football over the last 10 years.
Here’s Tennessee’s 10 best wins of the last decade.
10. 23-21 Win vs. No. 11 South Carolina, 2013
In the long run, this game doesn’t matter as much as others on this list, but it was an important win at the time for the Vols and ended a lot of dubious streaks. Tennessee took down a favored South Carolina team at home, and it improved UT’s record to 4-3. That South Carolina team finished the season with an 11-2 record and No. 4 overall in the AP Poll. Many fans at the time hoped it was a sign of things to come for the Butch Jones era, but Tennessee unfortunately couldn’t carry the momentum the rest of the way that season against an extremely difficult schedule, falling to 5-7 overall.
Still, the win ended a losing streak to Steve Spurrier and the Gamecocks, and gave Tennessee their first win over a ranked opponent in a number of years.
9. 30-24 Win at No. 21 Auburn, 2018
Last year’s upset victory over a ranked Auburn team on the road was a perfect storm for Tennessee. The Vols were coming off a bye week, Auburn appeared to have locker room issues going on, the game kicked off at noon, and Jeremy Pruitt was very familiar with the Tigers. That all mixed together for Jeremy Pruitt’s first signature win of his Tennessee head coaching tenure, and it was one of the more impressive offensive performances of UT’s offense in 2018. Unfortunately, the win couldn’t propel Tennessee to a bowl game, but it showed promise for Pruitt’s coaching ability.
8. 45-24 Win vs. Virginia Tech (Battle at Bristol), 2016
The game itself wasn’t the most memorable game Tennessee has played in the last 10 years, but everyone who was in attendance for the Battle at Bristol will never forget the spectacle of the event. The game holds the record for the most-attended American football game, and Tennessee used that huge platform to their advantage, blowing by Virginia Tech 45-24 thanks to five Hokie turnovers. That game set the stage for the rest of Tennessee’s 2016 season, and hopes were still high at that point.
7. 24-7 Win vs. No. 12 Kentucky, 2018
Some will still say this win is the most dominating of the Jeremy Pruitt era so far, and they have a strong argument for that. Tennessee absolutely plowed a top-15 Kentucky team into the turf in Neyland Stadium on November 10, 2018, dominating the Wildcats on both sides of the ball. The game featured UT’s best defensive performance of the season and arguably of the entire Pruitt era to date, and it even had some fireworks with a halftime Hail Mary from Jarrett Guarantano.
The win put Tennessee at 5-5, and a bowl game in Year One of the Pruitt era was well within reach. We’ll forget for a moment what happened after this game and just choose to focus on this win, okay?
6. 45-28 Win vs. Iowa in TaxSlayer Bowl, 2015
Tennessee hadn’t been to a bowl game since 2010, and the Vols finally earned enough wins in the 2014 season to get back to the postseason. Thanks to an ugly 24-17 victory over Vanderbilt in the regular season finale, UT made it to the TaxSlayer Bowl to take on a 7-5 Iowa team. Tennessee went on to completely embarrass the Hawkeyes, running out to a 28-0 lead and holding a 35-7 edge at halftime. The Vols would let off the gas in the second half, but hopes began to run high about what the Vols’ offense could do heading into the 2015 season because of the dominating bowl victory.
5. 45-42 OT Win at South Carolina, 2014
That bowl game against Iowa wouldn’t have even happened if not for Tennessee’s comeback victory on the road against South Carolina on November 1, 2014. Josh Dobbs had his breakout game in his first start of the season, throwing for 301 yards and two touchdowns while running for 166 yards and three scores. He helped rally the Vols back from a 42-28 deficit with 4:52 left in the fourth quarter to tie the game at 42-all with 11 seconds remaining to force overtime. Tennessee’s offense did enough to get a field goal in the extra period, and sacks from Curt Maggitt and Derek Barnett pushed South Carolina out of Elliot Fry’s field goal range, and his 58-yard attempt was no good, giving UT an improbable win.
That victory sparked the Vols’ second half push to a bowl game, improving them to 4-5 and establishing Dobbs as the team’s unquestioned quarterback.
4. 45-6 Win vs. No. 13 Northwestern in Outback Bowl, 2015
Tennessee had suffered tons of heartbreak and collapsing losses earlier in the 2015 season, but the Vols closed out the regular season strong with five-straight wins, earning a berth in the Outback Bowl. The Vols were matched up against No. 13 Northwestern, UT’s fourth ranked opponent of the season. Tennessee proceeded to take them to the woodshed, capping off a dominating offensive performance on the ground with an Evan Berry 100-yard pick-six in the closing seconds of the game.
That win gave Tennessee a 9-4 record, their best end-of-season record since finishing 10-4 in 2007. Vol fans were hopeful that the strong close to the regular season and UT’s annihilation of Northwestern would springboard the Vols into an SEC East crown in 2016, and this victory was largely responsible for kicking off the hype train for the 2016 offseason.
3. 38-31 Win vs. No. 19 Georgia, 2015
Again, just like that TaxSlayer Bowl victory over Iowa, the 2015 bowl win over Northwestern might not have happened if not for a Vols’ comeback victory earlier in the season. Tennessee salvaged their season on October 10, 2015 with a 38-31 win over the Georgia Bulldogs. The Vols had already suffered second half collapses against Oklahoma and Florida, and UT had lost to Arkansas at home the previous week and sat at a disappointing 2-3 while hosting the Bulldogs. Tennessee quickly fell behind 24-3 in the second quarter after a Reggie Davis 70-yard punt return touchdown.
But then the Vols finally woke up. Josh Dobbs find Josh Smith for what seemed a fateful 39-yard touchdown with 1:04 left in the quarter to give UT their first touchdown, then Sony Michel fumbled the ensuing kick-off, and John Kelly recovered, giving the Vols the ball at the UGA 25. Five plays later, Tennessee suddenly turned a 24-3 deficit into a 24-17 game at halftime. The Vols would complete the comeback in the second half, taking a 31-24 lead then eventually a 38-31 lead in the fourth. A batted pass by Brian Randolph as time expired gave Tennessee the victory, and Tennessee’s season was saved from disaster.
2. 38-28 Win vs. No. 19 Florida, 2016
The last two on this list could really be 1A and 1B, but Tennessee’s comeback, streak-ending victory over Florida in 2016 comes in at No. 2 on this list. The Vols hadn’t beaten the Gators since 2004, and 2016 was supposed to be the year that streak finally ended.
But at halftime, it certainly looked like UT’s losing skid would continue and Tennessee’s bid for the SEC East crown would end before it even started. The Vols trailed Florida 21-3 at the half, and the Vols came off the field to boos from the sold out Neyland Stadium crowd.
But in the second half, Tennessee finally roared to life. After an interception on their first possession of the half, Josh Dobbs completed a touchdown pass to Jalen Hurd, and UT got off to the races. Tennessee would go on to score 35 unanswered points and had a commanding 38-21 lead with 8:27 to go in the game. Jauan Jennings provided his first of two huge highlight plays for the 2016 season in the middle of that comeback, burning Jalen “Teez” Tabor for a 67-yard touchdown to give the Vols a 24-21 lead.
Florida would score a touchdown with 4:17 to go to make it 38-28, but it was far too little too late, and Tennessee finally ended their losing streak to Florida and improved to 4-0 in the process.
1. 34-31 Win at No. 25 Georgia, 2016
In at No. 1 comes arguably the most memorable play of the last decade for the Vols, and that’s the Hail Mary victory over Georgia on the road in 2016. The game itself wasn’t the prettiest, with UT falling behind 17-0 before a Josh Dobbs rushing touchdown with 12 seconds remaining in the first half put UT on the board. It wasn’t until Derek Barnett sacked UGA’s Jacob Eason and he fumbled the ball in the end zone and Corey Vereen recovered it for a score that Tennessee took the lead, 28-24, with 2:56 to go.
Jacob Eason then threw an interception on Georgia’s next possession, and the Vols were set up perfectly to salt the game away. But they couldn’t pick up a first down on three plays, and UGA got the ball back. With 10 seconds left in the game, Eason connected with Riley Ridley for a 47-yard touchdown, and it looked like Georgia had escaped with an epic victory of their own.
Instead, a penalty caused Georgia to kick the ball from further back than normal, and Evan Berry gave UT solid field position at the UGA 43 with a good return.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Dobbs found Jauan Jennings in the end zone on a 43-yard Hail Mary as time expired to propel Tennessee past the Bulldogs 34-31, improving the Vols to 5-0 and keeping their hopes of winning the SEC East alive.