One thing we can quickly unveil is that Tennessee's offense under the direction of Phillip Fulmer has set a high standard and created expectations that aren't always easy to approach. For instance: The Vols have surpassed the 5,000 yard mark as a team four times in their long illustrious history and three of those occurred when Fulmer was head coach while the fourth took place when he was UT's offensive coordinator.
Undoubtedly, much of that success has to do with recruiting or the level of talent available on The Hill, and the Vols have enjoyed an outstanding collection of athletes in the last decade under Fulmer.
Many Tennessee fans might pick the offenses under the direction of the inimitable Peyton Manning as UT's best ever, particularly the 1997 attack that produced a record 5794 total yards and 300 first downs in 12 games. (No. 2 in first downs is the 1991 team with 266 in 11 games).
The 1990 offense would certainly get a lot of votes given the presence of such premier players as receivers Carl Pickens and Alvin Harper along with offensive linemen Charles McRae and Antone Davis. By the way, Harper, McRae and Davis were all selected in the first round of the 1991 NFL Draft with the latter two being the first offensive players selected that year. Pickens was taken in the second round of 1992 NFL Draft and was voted the AFC's offensive rookie of the year.
Chuck Webb started the year at tailback in 1990, gaining 133 yards in a 31-31 tie against eventual national champion Colorado before he injured a knee the next week against Pacific, effectively ending his football career. Webb still holds the top two spots on Tennessee's single-game rushing list with 294 yards vs. Mississippi and 254 yards vs. Arkansas. He was replaced in 1990 by diminutive Tony Thompson who went on to lead the SEC in rushing with 1,261 yards. That fact alone speaks volumes about the strength of UT's 1990 offense.
Another good case could be made for the 1990 offense because of its remarkable balance. That year the Vols rushed for 2,468 yards and passed for 2,465 yards. Compare that to the 1997 UT team that threw for 3,981 yards and rushed for 1,831 yards — a difference of 2,150 yards.
Both the 1990 and 1997 UT teams won SEC championships, but the 1990 squad failed to score a touchdown in a 9-6 home loss to Alabama while the 1997 team managed to score but 17 points in two of its last three games against Vanderbilt and Nebraska.
That's why the selection here for the best Tennessee offense of all time goes to a team that didn't win a national championship or even an SEC title, but it did terrorize every defense it faced. The team in question is the 1993 squad which was Fulmer's first full season at the UT helm.
The 1993 Tennessee team had an abundance of talent, depth and balance. It also had five starters from the Volunteer State including four in the offensive line — Bubba Smith, Jason Layman, Jeff Smith and Kevin Mays. Leslie Ratliff from Jonesboro, Ark., was the fifth O-line starter.
The backfield was led by quarterback Heath Shuler and had three NFL quality tailbacks in Charlie Garner, James Stewart and Aaron Hayden. The Vols also had three outstanding and versatile fullbacks in Mario Brunson, Mose Phillips and Eric Lane.
Interestingly, the receiving corps wasn't nearly impressive by UT's standards, a fact which should give hope to Vol fans who worry about the lack of high caliber pass catchers on the 2003 squad. The Volunteers starters that year were Cory Fleming (the fifth in-state starter) and Craig Faulkner of Kentucky. Small but speedy Nilo Silvan (5-9, 176) and Kendrick Jones (5-8, 187) were back-ups while redshirt freshman Joey Kent was a key contributor. Ron Davis split time between offense and defense. Although all of these receivers were serviceable and Kent would eventually become a star, none demanded double-team attention or were dominate forces in 1993. In fact, Faulkner led Tennessee in receiving that year with only 40 catches for 680 yards.
Collectively, this group was an offensive juggernaut scoring a record 484 points in 11 regular season games. Four times it scored 50 or more points in a game including a 50-0 victory over Louisiana Tech in the season opener and a 62-14 victory over Vanderbilt to conclude the campaign. It also beat Duke 52-19 and South Carolina 55-3. It beat Georgia 38-6 and LSU 42-20. It beat a ranked Louisville team 45-10 and traditional rival Kentucky 48-0. It's only loss was at Florida by a score of 41-34. It's lowest output came in a 17-17 tie at Alabama. That decision was later reversed after the NCAA forced the Tide to forfeit all of its victories for recruiting violations. (Imagine that.) The next lowest output came in a 28-14 victory at Arkansas.
The Vols averaged a record 43.3 points per game in 1993 and outscored its opponents by an incredible 311 points on the season. That differential exceeds any in Tennessee history except for the 1929 team which outscored its opponents by the same margin (330 to 19).
The 1993 team amassed an amazing 5,286 yards playing one game less than the 1997 team. Moreover, it had much better balance than the ‘97 squad with 2,665 yards passing and 2,621 yards passing. Additionally, it scored 31 touchdowns through the air and 27 on the ground compared to the ‘97 team that had 37 passing TDs and only 13 rushing.
In 1993, the Vols completed a record 65.0 percent of their passes and enjoyed a 3.4-to-1.0 touchdown pass-to-interception ratio (31 to 9). Furthermore, place kicker John Becksvoort connected on 12-of-13 field goals and was a perfect 59-of-59 extra points.
A factor that favored the ‘93 team was its versatility at tailback and fullback. The Vols had a game breaker in Garner and a ground-it-out guy in Hayden. Stewart was a big back with good speed and excellent vision. Brunson was a bull of blocker while Phillips and Lane were effective out of the backfield as receivers in addition to being capable lead blockers.
But the key to Tennessee's offensive firepower was found in its balance and the key to its balance was found in its quarterback. Shuler's ability to run or throw made him a dual threat and forced defenses to assign a spy in case he decided to take off. This gave a numerical advantage that most prior and subsequent UT teams lacked, although the 1998 and 1999 teams under Tee Martin enjoyed a similar edge. Shuler rarely took sacks or threw interceptions (13 picks total in two years) and managed to compile nearly 800 yards rushing in two seasons as a starter. His arm strength stretched defenses vertically and opened opportunities for intermediate patterns while his ability to pick up tough yardage around the goal line made UT difficult to deny.
It's something to consider as Tennessee launches its latest national search for a signal caller, but then again QBs of Shuler's quality don't come along every year, neither are they always incline to sign with UT.