Can the Vols be Mega-Overachievers in 2011?

That depends on your expectations.

And, have any Vol teams of the past ever been overachievers?

For a historical perspective, let’s make the Associated Press pre-season poll the definition of expectations. The AP poll has been around since the 1936 season, but it wasn’t until 1950 that the poll published a pre-season ranking. Before that, the first poll was only after the season was well underway.

That gives us over 60 years to see how many Vol teams have been over-achievers as defined by a little AP poll analysis.

Beginning in 1950, Tennessee was ranked in the AP pre-season poll 38 times out of 61 years. That leaves 23 years in which the Vols were not ranked in the AP pre-season poll. The longest stretch of consecutive years in which the Vols were unranked pre-season was 10, during 1976-1985 when Majors was rebuilding the program.

The obvious question then becomes: In how many seasons was Tennessee unranked in the AP pre-season poll and went on to finish the season ranked?

Answer: only 4 times.

1965, 1970, 1985, and 1989.

And when this has happened, it isn’t like the Vols were unranked pre-season and finished 19th or 20th. Nope. In each of these four seasons of low-expectations, Tennessee finished in the AP poll at 7th, 4th, 4th, and 5th.

That’s stunning. Four seasons in which the Vols basically shocked the football world. Mega-overachievers.

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In looking back to look forward, are any of these over-achieving seasons ‘models’ for the upcoming season?

1965

The previous season, the Vols went 4-5-1 under new coach Doug Dickey, who had just begun to bring Tennessee football into the modern world. The last winning season had been 1961, and the last season in which the Vols finished ranked in the final AP poll was 1957.

In 1965, the Vols finished at 8-1-2, including a win in their first bowl appearance in eight years. The long, slog of a decline under Bowden Wyatt ended abruptly under the tutlage of a very young, energetic, and innovative head coach in only his second season.

But, it wasn’t exactly a season of exhilharation. The team, the school, the entire state had to endure the tragedy of October 18, the Monday after ‘Bama QB Ken Stabler threw the ball out of bounds with 0:06 left – on 4th down – to stop the clock in order to attempt a game-winning FG which never was attempted.

Three of Dickey’s assistant coaches were killed in a train-car collision in Knoxville.

Somehow, the Vols finished the regular season with only one loss against Ole Miss, a big, big win against UCLA, and a Bluebonnet Bowl victory in the brand-new Astrodome.

1970

Dickey became so successful in the ensuing years, capped by two SEC crowns in ’67 and’69, that when he bolted for his alma mater for the 1970 campaign, and replaced by another young, unknown coach, the Vols dropped off the AP poll map immediately.

Not only was this the result of the loss of a very successful head coach, but also the graduation losses of the likes of Steve Kiner and Jack Reynolds.

The 1970 Vols, unranked in the pre-season, exceeded all of Dickey’s W-L records by going 11-1, including a 24-0 shutout of Alabama (the first scoreless game by the Tide in 115 games) and winning the Sugar Bowl. It looked like Battle was just taking up where Dickey had left off, and a national championship couldn’t be very far away.

1985

Instead, things declined in a slow-boil to the point where another head coach, this one a national superstar, took over at the Rocky Bottom of 4-7 in 1977 and began a long, somewhat excruciating rise back to national prominance.

There were moments of brilliance on that long climb back, but even at the start of his 9th season as head coach, Johnny Majors hadn’t had a squad ranked in the pre-season AP poll.

The Sugar Vols changed all of that, going 9-1-2, and putting a pure ass-whupping on the mighty Miami Hurricane in the Sugar Bowl to finish within shouting distance of the top spot.

A stunning finish to a stunning season that had been a very long time coming.

1989

The next three seasons under Majors felt like a yo-yo delivering whiplash from all of the highs and lows. Just before the 1989 season, the Vols were unranked after a dismal 5-6 season that had the faithful questioning Majors at every turn.

It was time for Johnny’s second greatest surprise of his now-long career as the coach of his alma mater. For help, he had Fulmer as the OC, Chavis as the DL coach, and Cutcliffe as the TE coach to provide the foreshadowing. On the field, tailback Reggie Cobb, and receivers Thomas Woods, Alvin Harper, and Carl Pickens gave QB Andy Kelly the troops necessary to have a 10-1 regular season – a loss at Alabama the only blemish – followed by a win over Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl to finish the decade with a stunning record.

***

None of this can be used to predict anything. But it is interesting that two of these four mega-overachieving Vol teams were led by two very young, unproven head coaches.

The circumstances of the 1970 season were much different than now – the Tennessee football program had been thoroughly rebuilt and had won two conference crowns in two of the three previous seasons.

So, perhaps it is the 1965 season that is the blueprint of hope for the 2011 Vols. A period of turbulent decline, followed by the hiring of a virtually unheard-of coach, who started his career with a losing season, to be immediately followed by a top-ten finish in the national poll.

It could happen again.

All we have to do is go to the Emerald City and see the Wizard, get some help from winged monkeys, fight off fighting trees and hammer-heads, put on ruby shoes, close our eyes, click our heels three times, and recite a mantra.

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