sports (2006-48)

Tennessee’s football record isn’t as good as it looks

By the Numbers

by Tony Basilio

The numbers will not lie, although I may. When evaluating Tennessee’s recently completed 9-3 season it seems wholeheartedly fair to use an empirical approach. Simply put, college football at the major college level isn’t just about winning. It’s about relevance. So for a football program to remain vital and competitive it must not only play the teams that matter but beat them as well. The ability to win the games that matter is what separates the men from the boys, or in this case, Auburn from South Carolina.

Tennessee’s 9-3 finish on the heels of a 5-6 campaign in ’05 is terrific. Until, that is, you look beneath the hood. First, Tennessee should never have been coming off a 5-6. Their team was much better than that, talent-wise. So, while 9-3 looks scintillating juxtaposed with 5-6, in golf terms it’s like scoring a par on the heels of a quadruple bogey. The offense was much better and the team played solid football, but Tennessee failed in the one true test that any program must pass for any season to truly be considered a success: They didn’t beat anybody on their league schedule that could be considered a very good team. The previous statement may be the only place where our empirical exercise gets subjective, but for the sake of the point I must assert that unless a program finishes with a 5-3 record or better, it is a mediocre team for that particular year. Therefore, Georgia (4-4) and Alabama (2-6) are wins that look good on paper because they came over name teams, but they aren’t wins that truly matter in making a program’s season worthy of greatness.

Teams that matter are the ones who finish with a 5-3 record in the league in any respective campaign. Against these teams, Tennessee is 1-7 in their last 8 tries dating back to October of ’04. Tennessee’s 9-3 finish just lost a little bit of luster. Embarrassingly, Tennessee’s last and only win versus a team that finished with a winning record was last year’s miracle in Baton Rouge played on a rare Monday night with the backdrop of Katrina.

Records of 9-3 are fine until you consider relevance, and the numbers say that Tennessee is not relevant. It’s not just the past two seasons where Tennessee has failed to beat the teams in the league that matter. The last time the Vols finished a season with a winning record against winning SEC teams was ’01 when the Vols beat LSU, South Carolina and Florida while losing to Georgia. That’s called getting it done! Not coincidentally, ‘01 was also the last time Tennessee entered November as a program truly in the National Championship picture.

A closer look inside the numbers is troubling. Alabama, in one of the darkest periods in the school’s history, was 1-14 during the Mike Shula era versus teams that finished an SEC season with a 5-3 or better record. Tennessee during this same period is 3-10. Shula got axed, while Phillip Fulmer is probably getting a raise. Oh, and that one win Shula recorded during his Crimson Reign of Terror was over The Urban Legend at Florida who is 2-0 versus Fulmer. So why is Shula gone while Fulmer gets the key to the city?

Yes, 9-3 is typically a very good season. In a vacuum, many Vol fans would take that record in most years, until you consider that Georgia was as bad as they’ve been in years. The Dawgs proved that by losing to both Vanderbilt and Kentucky. Not even Tennessee could turn that trick last year. You could say that Tennessee lost to Florida and LSU this season by only a couple of points. That kind of logic is for South Carolina and Ole Miss fans. Unfortunately, this season has shown that UT is closer to those programs than they are the big boys in the league.

That’s 35 percent! And that’s counting the ’01 season. During this same time period, Florida with three coaches threw up a six-year total of 9-9 versus similar league foes. Ron Zook who was fired after only three seasons was 3-5. That’s 40 percent. OK. Surely Fulmer outperformed Zook during Zooker’s three years at Florida. As Lee Corso says: Not so fast my friend! While Zook was 3-5 from ’02 through ’04, Fulmer was 3-7 during this same time period.  Am I missing something here?

In the spirit of fairness, I tried to give any coach who reached the title game the benefit of the doubt. Therefore, losses in the SEC Title Game don’t count here. So the final numbers for ’01 through ’06 versus teams with at least 5-3 final record in the league are:

Auburn           12-8 (.600)

In conclusion, the numbers don’t lie. Tennessee is a great Alabama hire away from sliding into sixth overall in the SEC. Another couple notches down the rung would mean the Vols are a second-division SEC program. This would bring a raise of another kind. Like doubts about the future of the UT program.

Tune in and talk sports with Tony Basilio weekdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on ESPN Radio WVLZ 1180 AM. Visit for more information.