By Steve Williams
A Tennessee football team that got off to one of the worse starts in school history now has a chance to have the best finish ever.
From 0-2 and 1-4, including the embarrassing loss to Georgia State in the season opener, to a 5-5 record, that’s how far the Vols had come after holding off Kentucky 17-13 with a determined goal line stand in Week 11 of the 2019 season.
UT players spent an open date week healing, resting and preparing for their next 50-50 game at Missouri. They also would spend some extra time on academics as the end of the semester nears, said second-year head coach Jeremy Pruitt.
The Vols’ second-half charge had me going through records since the early 1900s, trying to find a better turnaround season than this one has become.
Right now the 1988 campaign is the leader in the club house. Many fans remember or have heard about that season. Johnny Majors’ Vols lost their first six games before winning their last five.
A 13-point win over Memphis ended the skid, followed by winning margins of three, eight, four and seven points, respectively, over Boston College, Ole Miss, Kentucky and Vanderbilt. There would be no bowl game to cap off the 5-6 year.
The current Tennessee team can flip a 1-4 record to 8-5, if it closes with wins over Mizzou, Vandy and a bowl opponent. In my book, that would be a better rags-to-riches story than the tale of ’88.
I came across a few other interesting seasons in my research.
The 1923 Vols under Coach Mark Banks won their last two games over Ole Miss and Kentucky to finish 5-4-1.
The results of UT’s up-and-down 1935 campaign were W-L-W-L-W-L-W-L-L. The Vols couldn’t sustain the pattern in the finale, losing at Kentucky 27-0.
Bob Neyland’s 1947 team won its last three games to finish 5-5.
In the only season (1963) Jim McDonald coached, his team won four of its last five games to hang up a 5-5 record.
The second UT team Majors coached in 1978 started 1-4-1 but won four of their last five. The lone loss down the stretch was against Notre Dame 31-14.
Six years later, in 1984, Majors’ team started 2-2-1 and then won four straight, but lost to Kentucky in Knoxville 17-12.
The Vols were 2-5 under Majors in 1986 before winning their last five, including a victory over Minnesota in the Liberty Bowl.
The slogan – “They Remember What You Do in November” – was heard often in the Majors era. It’s not surprising we’ve heard it a time or two already this season.
After plenty of tough times since the end of the Phillip Fulmer era, it’s good to hear it again!