When 10 wins aren’t enough

By Tom Mattingly

At the end of each season, football fans each have their own way of measuring the success or failure of each campaign. Very often, even the most successful season has an asterisk (*) or asterisks (**) attached to it. The score is one thing, but there are also elements of each season that deserve specific mention. Hence the asterisk is a way of giving perspective to what happened in a particular game in a season.

For example, the early 2000s were a mixed bag for Tennessee fans. The 2000 and 2002 seasons were definitely not what Vol fans were looking for, what with 8-4 and 8-5 records, respectively. They concluded with a couple of bowl losses, one to Kansas State in the 2001 Cotton Bowl and a drubbing by Maryland in the 2002 Peach Bowl. By any measure, that was not an acceptable follow-up to the decade of the 1990s, one of the most successful in school history.

That series of events came before and after the 2001 season, which brought home an 11-2 record, yet was marred by a loss to LSU (31-20) in the SEC title game.

When the historians tally up the most distressing losses over the years, that game joins the 1969 Ole Miss (38-0) game, the second half of the 1995 Florida game (43-7 specifically and 62-37 overall), and the 2022 South Carolina contest (63-38), as prime examples.

There haven’t been very many such losses over the years, but, when they happen, they catch everybody’s attention. The stakes were high, and the fall was devastating.

That 2001 LSU game was a killer and still haunts the memories of faithful Tennessee fans more than 20 years later. There has been much discussion about the Vols’ knocking the Tigers’ quarterback and lead running back out of the game and the Vols’ inability to stop the quarterback draw.

Lost in the shuffle that season were wins at Syracuse, Alabama, Notre Dame, and Florida, and a resounding triumph over Michigan in the Florida Citrus Bowl in Orlando.

Thinking about the 2003 and 2004 campaigns, how could Tennessee teams defeat Florida and Alabama in successive years and win 10 games each campaign, yet have each season be perceived as a disappointment or, for lack of a better word, as “underachieving”?

That’s exactly what happened, with teams that each compiled 10-3 records, went 13-3 against SEC foes and played in the SEC Championship game that latter season. The results left a great number of fans wondering what might have been.

Losses at Auburn and at home to Georgia, plus a dispiriting loss to Clemson in a return trip to the Peach Bowl, marred the 2003 season. The Georgia loss was especially galling given a critical turnover late in the first half that turned a potential go-ahead score into a coast-to-coast Georgia touchdown after a fumble recovery and run that extended the Bulldog lead.

At Auburn, the Vols fell behind early, yet rallied, and were in a position to win before a late game interception turned the game the Tigers’ way.

Earlier in the season, the Vols pulled out a miracle finish with a 30-28 win over Florida at Neyland Stadium. James Wilhoit had been fitted for goat’s horns for missing an extra point late in the game. Vol defenders forced a punt, and freshman signal-caller Erik Ainge led the Vols to a shot at a 50-yard field goal and the win. Wilhoit’s kick was true, and the Vols escaped.

There was a memorable and remarkable 51-43 win at Tuscaloosa as the Vols bested the Crimson Tide in six overtimes. The Vols ran the table the rest of the way, pulling off a major upset at Miami, but, in the minds of many Vol fans, it somehow “wasn’t enough.”

The 2004 team defeated Florida and Alabama at home and won at Georgia, a week after the Bulldogs had taken apart LSU, but lost twice to Auburn, once at home and once in the SEC title game. There was also a loss to Notre Dame a few weeks before Irish head coach Tyrone Willingham was let go.

The Vols won the Cotton Bowl game, 38-7, over Texas A&M in a victory led by Rick Clausen. Clausen was inserted after injuries to the two freshman signal-callers, Ainge and Brent Schaeffer. Even with the benefit of hindsight, the season somehow didn’t seem to pass muster.

There are, therefore, times that 10 wins in a season just aren’t enough, even if two of them in 2003 and 2004 were against Alabama and Florida. That was a major storyline in the early 2000s.