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How Tennessee football fared the next season after a top six finish in the AP Poll

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Tennessee football finished sixth in the final AP Poll, which was released on Tuesday. Should the Vols have been ranked higher? Yes. However, let’s not quibble with that whole Alabama debate. Let’s look at the Vols’ recent history of finishing near the top five and what became of those teams during the following season.

Tennessee has finished sixth or better in the AP Poll 14 times in history, including the 2022 season. The previous 13 times Tennessee finished the season ranked that high was not always a harbinger of things to come. 

Here’s a look:

1938 to 1939

In 1938, Tennessee football won its first SEC Championship, reached its first bowl game (a 17-0 victory over the Oklahoma Sooners in the Orange Bowl), captured a share of its first national championship and finished ranked in the AP Poll for the first time ever at No. 2. The Vols went 11-0, winning double digit games, another first.

How did they follow that up? Try being the last team in major college football to go undefeated, untied and unscored on in the regular season. Yes, the Vols went 10-0 in the regular season without allowing a single point, part of a 23-game winning streak, and 15 straight shutout streak. It didn’t end well, though, as they didn’t claim a second straight national title and, with George Cafego injured, lost 14-0 to the USC Trojans in the Rose Bowl.

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1939 to 1940

What’s better than back to back SEC Championships and undefeated regular season? Try three straight SEC Championships and undefeated regular seasons. The Vols finished the historic 1939 season ranked No. 2 in the AP Poll. This was during Robert Neyland’s second stint and is considered the Golden Age of Tennessee football history.

The Vols came back in 1940 and went 10-0 again. This time, they finished No. 4 in the AP Poll, but like 1938, they were able to claim a share of the national championship. This was part of a 33-game regular season winning streak and 17-game regular season shutout streak. It should be noted that bowl games were effectively exhibitions at this time. Nonetheless, the Vols lost 19-13 to the Boston College Eagles in the Sugar Bowl this year.

1940 to 1941

Robert Neyland’s second stint came to an abrupt end after 1940, as the General was called back to service to train soldiers and help the United States gear up for entry into World War II. At the time of his departure, the Vols were on top of the world, and they replaced him with John Barnhill.

W.H. Britton replaced Neyland after his first stint in 1935, and he went 4-5, so there was cause for concern. However, Barnhill guided the Vols to an 8-2 record in 1941 with a No. 18 ranking to finish the year. Barnhill helped UT through a difficult four seasons from 1941 to 1945 until Neyland returned (1943 was canceled due to the war). He went 32-5-2 with four top 20 finishes, a Sugar Bowl win and a Rose Bowl loss.

1950 to 1951

A 10-game winning streak to finish the 1950 season 11-1, ranked No. 4 in the AP Poll and No. 3 in the Coaches Poll was enough for enough selectors to help Tennessee football claim its third national title. This was Neyland’s third stint, and it also included the Vols greatest win over Kentucky, as they were the only loss for Bear Bryant’s Wildcats that year. They also beat the Texas Longhorns in the Cotton Bowl.

That strong finish to the season resulted in a lot of hype for the Vols entering the 1951 campaign, and they started that year ranked No. 1 in the nation. That was a ranking they would hold in the AP Poll for all but four weeks in the regular season, as they beat everybody in their path to win their first AP national championship.

1951 to 1952

That 1951 national championship campaign ended on a sour note, as the Vols lost to the Maryland Terrapins in the Sugar Bowl 28-13. Given the fact that Maryland finished undefeated, this became one of those examples of the need to rank teams after the bowls, not before the bowls.

Neyland’s program entered 1952 with many of the same players and started ranked No. 6. However, they lost to the Duke Blue Devils in the second game of the year. In November, they tied the Kentucky Wildcats to finish the regular season 8-2-1 and No. 8 in both polls. They lost to Texas in the Cotton Bowl, a rematch of two years ago. Neyland was forced to retire after this year due to health reasons.

1956 to 1957

After a 6-3-1 campaign in his first season season as head man at UT, Bowden Wyatt entered 1956 behind superstar Johnny Majors. They went 10-0 in the regular season, highlighted by a 6-0 win over the No. 2 ranked Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets to win the SEC Championship. However, they finished the year No. 2, Majors finished second in the Heisman, and the Vols lost the Sugar Bowl to the Baylor Bears.

A year later, the Vols lost their opener to the Auburn Tigers. They went on a six-game winning streak after that before losing two straight to the Ole Miss Rebels and Kentucky. However, they closed out the year beating the Vanderbilt Commodores and the Texas A&M Aggies in the Gator Bowl, Bryant’s last game with A&M to finish 8-3, No. 16 in the Coaches Poll and No. 13 in the AP Poll.

1967 to 1968

It would take more than a decade for Tennessee football to return to the top six after 1956, as the single wing fell out of fashion. Doug Dickey revitalized it with the T-formation. In 1967, the Vols lost their opener 24-20 to the UCLA Bruins. However, Dewey Warren led them to wins the rest of the regular season to win the SEC, finish 9-1, No. 2 in both polls and claim a share of the national title. They lost 26-24 to Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl.

A year later, the program was still rolling, but with the loss of Warren, arguably the best quarterback until Heath Shuler came along, a step back was natural. They opened the season tying the Georgia Bulldogs, and they lost at Auburn in November, costing themselves a share of the SEC Championship with UGA, to finish the regular season No. 13 in the AP Poll and No. 7 in the Coaches Poll. Then they lost to Texas in the Cotton Bowl to finish 8-2-1.

1970 to 1971

Bill Battle took over for Dickey in 1970 after the Vols won the SEC Championship in 1969. Loaded with talent, he led them to an 11-1 record and Sugar Bowl victory over the Air Force Falcons to finish ranked No. 4 in both polls. However, a loss to Auburn in the second game of the season cost them the SEC and national titles.

A year later, the Vols started ranked No. 8. However, they lost to Auburn again in the second game of the season, and they also lost on the road to the Alabama Crimson Tide in October, which began an 11-game losing streak to Bama, their longest until the 2000s. Still, they won out, finishing the year by beating the Penn State Nittany Lions and the Arkansas Razorbacks in the Liberty Bowl to finish 10-2 and No. 9 in both polls.

1985 to 1986

Tennessee finished the season in 1985 with a surprising Sugar Bowl victory and a team that became one of the most beloved teams in recent memory and ended the season fourth in the AP Poll. However, the Vols slipped a bit in 1986. The next season didn’t go very well.

Tennessee stumbled out of the gate in 1986 with two losses to Mississippi State and Auburn, both in September. Then, things got worse. The Vols beat UTEP before losing to Army, Alabama and Georgia Tech. The Vols righted the ship with five straight wins, but finished the season 7-5 and unranked in the AP Poll.

1989 to 1990

The Vols only had one blemish on their record in 1989. Tennessee lost to No. 10 Alabama 47-30, but beat No. 6 UCLA, No. 4 Auburn and No. 10 Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl to close out the season and finish the season No. 5 in the AP Poll.

In 1990, Alabama got Tennessee again. The Crimson Tide beat the Vols 9-6 in one of the most bizarre endings in UT football history. The Vols also lost to No. 1 Notre Dame in a game that featured a collection of unrivaled talent between the two teams when they met in Neyland Stadium. The Vols could have won that game had it not been for a late interception. Tennessee would make up for it during the next season in the Miracle at South Bend. However, the Vols finished the season eighth in the AP Poll in 1990.

1995 to 1996

Individual seasons in the 1990’s were largely determined by what happened in the Florida game, which the Vols lost more times than not. In 1995, Tennessee lost to the Gators 62-37 in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. The Vols didn’t lose another game that season and finished ranked No. 3 in the AP Poll.

In 1996, Tennessee was again on the verge of playing for a national championship despite losing to Florida in September. Then, there was Memphis. Due to a controversial kick return for a touchdown by Memphis that many thought was ruled down, the Tigers upset the Vols to end any championship dreams and finished the season ninth in the AP Poll.

1998 to 1999

Tennessee finally beat Florida in 1998 and did pretty well after that. The Vols won the national championship in the first season of the BCS by going undefeated and beating Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl. It would prove difficult to top that.

Many players on the 1998 and 1999 teams have said the latter was the better team. However, the Vols couldn’t pull off perfection in 1999. They lost to Florida and Arkansas and were ranked No. 2 and No. 3 respectively, when facing them. Tennessee finished the season ninth in the AP Poll.

2001 to 2002

Tennessee was in the national championship hunt again in 2001. The Vols made it to the SEC Championship Game after a thrilling, upset win over Florida and were expected to play Miami in the Rose Bowl. However, there was one problem. LSU upset the Vols in Atlanta for the SEC crown. Tennessee finished a hollow fourth in the AP Poll.

Tennessee faced an absolutely brutal schedule in 2002. The Vols lost to No. 10 Florida, No. 6 Georgia, No. 19 Alabama and No. 2 Miami. After a 30-3 Peach Bowl loss to Maryland, Tennessee football finished 8-5 and unranked for the first time since 1988.

2022 to 2023

Tennessee finished 11-2 in 2022 and finished the season No. 6. As for 2023, that remains to be determined.

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