Last month’s Orange Bowl victory over the Clemson Tigers was the most prestigious bowl win by Tennessee football this century. Sure, they won the Cotton Bowl in 2005, but during the BCS era, that particular bowl didn’t carry the prestige it used to or it does now, similar to their 1987 Peach Bowl win. Here is a look at where the Vols’ Orange Bowl win ranks among their greatest bowl wins in history.
10. 1991 Sugar Bowl
Tennessee: 23 Virginia: 22
This may have been the most thrilling bowl game for the Vols, and it was the cap to a great 1990 season, as UT finished 9-2-2, No. 8 in the AP Poll and SEC Champions for a second straight year. However, that title was by default, as the Florida Gators were on probation that year.
The Virginia Cavaliers entered this game unranked, as they lost three of their final four after starting the year No. 1. Trailing 16-3 in the fourth quarter, Tennessee football mounted a comeback. Andy Kelly had a touchdown pass to Carl Pickens, and that was sandwiched between two touchdown runs by Tony Thompson, the latter putting the Vols ahead with 31 seconds to go.
9. 1943 Sugar Bowl
Tennessee: 14 Tulsa: 7
From the Vols’ last Sugar Bowl win to their first Sugar Bowl win. They didn’t win the SEC Championship in 1942, John Barnhill’s second year on thew job, but they did finish the regular season 8-1-1 and ranked No. 7 in the AP Poll. Lining up on the other side were the Tulsa Golden Hurricane, who were No. 4 and finished the year 10-0.
Tulsa went up 7-0 in the second quarter, but the Vols scored the final 14 points. The scoring was weird too. It wasn’t just two touchdowns. UT scored and missed an extra point to trail 7-6 at halftime. They then blocked a punt for a safety to go up 8-7 in the third quarter, and they scored a final touchdown in the fourth to win 14-7.
8. 1971 Sugar Bowl
Tennessee: 34 Air Force: 13
Another Sugar Bowl win that didn’t come on the heels of an SEC Championship season, Tennessee football finished 1970, its first under head coach Bill Battle, with a 10-1 regular season record. The Vols were set to face the No. 11 ranked Air Force Falcons, who had gone 9-2 and lost two of their final three, in the Sugar Bowl.
It wasn’t close. Rocky Top jumped out to a 24-0 first quarter lead and controlled the game the rest of the way. With the win, they were able to finish 11-1 and ranked No. 4. With this season following the Vols’ 1969 SEC Championship under Doug Dickey, they were at the top of their game during this era. This was the best bowl win of that time.
7. 1990 Cotton Bowl
Tennessee: 31 Arkansas: 27
A 14-13 win by the Vols over the Arkansas Razorbacks in 1972 Liberty Bowl, a year after the previously mentioned Sugar Bowl, almost made this list. It was one of UT’s most thrilling bowl wins, but it wasn’t a prestigious bowl win, so we had to leave it off. However, the Cotton Bowl to end the 1989 season was a different story.
Tennessee football finished the regular season 10-1 and in a three-way tie for the SEC Championship. That was after a 5-6 1988 campaign, one that started 0-6. Thanks to a 250 yards from Chuck Webb and a red zone interception by Pickens, who played defense at that time, the Vols won 31-27. That resulted in an 11-1 finish and a No. 5 ranking.
6. 2022 Orange Bowl
Tennessee: 31 Clemson: 14
It’s a close call between that 1990 Cotton Bowl and the 2022 Orange Bowl, but this Orange Bowl takes the cake because of the quality of opponent. Arkansas wasn’t at the pinnacle of college football when the Vols beat them. Clemson, meanwhile, has been a two-time national championship program the past decade, and they just won the ACC for the seventh time in eight years.
While the Hogs were ranked No. 10 in the Cotton Bowl, Clemson was No. 7 and heavily favored. With a backup quarterback in Joe Milton III, Josh Heupel and UT absolutely dominated, winning 31-14. Bowls may not carry the weight they once did, but this resulted in an 11-win season and No. 6 finish for the Vols, so it counts for something.
5. 1996 Citrus Bowl
Tennessee: 20 Ohio State: 14
Very few non-BCS or New Years Six bowls in Tennessee football history can create similar memories. There was the Gator Bowl victory over Bear Bryant and the Texas A&M Aggies in 1957, Peyton Manning’s 408 passing yards in the 1997 Citrus Bowl, Casey Clausen torching the Michigan Wolverines in the 2002 Citrus Bowl and the thrilling comeback over the Indiana Hoosiers in the 2020 Gator Bowl.
However, none of those were as memorable as the 1996 Citrus Bowl. UT finished the regular season 10-1 and ranked No. 4. The Ohio State Buckeyes finished 10-1 and ranked No. 5, losing their final game to the Michigan Wolverines. Thanks to a stingy defense that stopped Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George on a 4th and goal and big plays from Manning, Jay Graham and Joey Kent, UT won to finish 11-1 and No. 3 in the final AP Poll.
4. 1951 Cotton Bowl
Tennessee: 20 Texas: 14
The first Cotton Bowl victory for Tennessee football allowed them to claim the national championship thanks to some selectors. UT finished the 1950 season 10-1. They most notably beat Bryant and the No. 3 ranked Kentucky Wildcats late in the year to finish the regular season ranked No. 4. UK still got the Sugar Bowl bid to face the No. 1 ranked Oklahoma Sooners, a team they beat.
Meanwhile, the No. 2 ranked Army Black Knights lost to the Navy Midshipmen after the final AP Poll came out. With the Texas Longhorns 9-1 and No. 3, this became a de facto national championship for selectors that made their choice after the bowls. Trailing 14-7 in the fourth quarter, the Vols mounted a long touchdown drive with a missed extra point. They then recovered a fumble to set up another TD and win 20-14.
3. 1939 Orange Bowl
Tennessee: 17 Oklahoma: 0
Last month’s Orange Bowl win was the first for the Vols since this game. This was the first bowl game for the Vols in history, and it came on the heels of their first SEC and national championship season in 1938, a year in which they went 10-0. It’s what you might call the Golden Age of the football program.
UT and the Oklahoma Sooners both entered this game undefeated. As a slight favorite, the Vols absolutely dominated, winning 17-0 in traditional Neyland fashion. This was the first of a three-year run in which the Vols didn’t lose a regular season game, and it was in the midst of 15 straight shutout wins. They won every regular season game in 1939 and didn’t allow a point in any of them.
2. 1986 Sugar Bowl
Tennessee: 35 Miami: 7
This was the cherry on top for the beloved 1985 team. The “Sugar Vols” started the year unranked but tied the No. 10 ranked UCLA Bruins and beat the No. 1 ranked Auburn Tigers. They also scored another top 20 win at the Alabama Crimson Tide. However, at 3-1-1, they lost quarterback Tony Robinson for the year. They tied the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in Daryl Dickey’s first start a week later but then won out to win their first SEC title since 1969.
That earned them an invited to the Sugar Bowl to face the No. 2 ranked and heavily favored Miami Hurricanes. Since the No. 1 ranked Penn State Nittany Lions lost to OU in the Orange Bowl, Miami would’ve been national champions if they won, and they were lobbying for that No. 1 spot. Jimmy Johnson forgot to focus on the Vols though. Miami scored first to go up 7-0, but it was all UT after that. They dominated to finish 9-1-2 and No. 4 in the nation.
1. 1999 Fiesta Bowl
Tennessee: 23 Florida State: 16
Obviously, this game needs no explanation. Tennessee football got to face the Florida State Seminoles in the first ever sanctioned national championship game. It was the first year of the BCS, the Vols were 12-0 and ranked No. 1 across the board, and FSU came in 11-1 and ranked No. 2.
Somehow, FSU was favored in the game. It was an ugly affair with missed extra points by both teams and key turnovers, but a pick-six by Dwayne Goodrich and a legendary performance by Peerless Price, who had 199 receiving yards and a touchdown, secured the Vols their first national title since 1951.