With a 5-5 record and two outings left in the regular season, a sweep produces the first winning record since Lane Kiffin went 7-6 in 2009. One win produces the first bowl bid since Derek Dooley guided the Big Orange to the Music City Bowl in 2010. Conversely, two losses produce a fourth consecutive 5-7 record and a fifth-consecutive losing season.
The stakes are high, raising the obvious question: How will the Vols respond to the loss of their best defender and, perhaps, their best overall player?
Let’s take a look at some similar situations in recent Vol history:
We’ll start with the case of Tony Robinson in 1985. “T-Rob” was the finest passer in college football that year, setting a school record with 387 passing yards in the opener versus UCLA, then gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated after riddling top-ranked Auburn in a 38-20 Game 2 romp. When Robinson suffered a season-ending ACL tear while leading Tennessee to a 16-14 Game 5 win against Alabama, however, a promising season appeared lost.
That perception grew stronger when the homestanding Vols needed a last-second 51-yard field goal by Carlos Reveiz to salvage a 6-6 tie with unranked Georgia Tech in their first game without T-Rob. Incredibly, though, his absence may have made the Vols a better team. Ken Donahue’s defense allowed just 28 points over the next six games, sparking a 6-0 run capped by a smashing 35-7 Sugar Bowl upset of second-ranked Miami. Incredibly, a Tennessee team that began the season unranked wound up 9-1-2 and rated No. 4 nationally. The Vols’ record with Tony Robinson at quarterback: 3-1-1. The record without him: 6-0-1.
The next superstar player to abruptly leave the lineup was Chuck Webb in 1990. As a redshirt freshman in 1989 he posted what still stands as the two greatest rushing performances in program history – a 294-yard effort against Ole Miss and a 250-yard outing against Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl. His sheer brilliance made Tennessee a contender for the 1990 national championship but he tore an ACL in Game 2 against lowly Pacific, costing the Vols the greatest rusher in program history.
Backup Tony Thompson assumed the first-team tailback job thereafter and performed well, averaging 5.8 yards per carry en route to 1,261 yards and 16 touchdowns. He was no Chuck Webb, however, and a team capable of winning a national title wound up finishing 9-2-2. Good, but not great.
Another superstar running back was felled by a torn ACL in 1998. After rushing for 1,364 yards as a true freshman in 1997, Jamal Lewis ranked among the Heisman Trophy frontrunners heading into his sophomore season of ’98. He blew out a knee in Game 4 at Auburn, however, costing Tennessee its chief weapon and a guy who would be the fifth player picked in the 2000 NFL Draft.
As happened following the loss of Robinson in ’85, however, Vol teammates came together following the loss of Lewis in ’98. Tee Martin grew into a dual-threat quarterback who could beat teams with his arm or his legs. Travis Henry and Travis Stephens picked up some of the slack at tailback. Peerless Price blossomed into a superstar receiver. And, as was the case in ’85, the defense did the rest. Led by Al Wilson, the stop unit propelled the Vols to a 13-0 record capped by a 23-16 defeat of Florida State in the BCS national championship game. So, who needs Jamal Lewis?
The 2003 season saw the Vols lose tackling machine Kevin Simon to a Game 2 injury. As a sophomore in 2002 Simon recorded 115 tackles, a remarkable total for a strongside linebacker. Fortunately for the 2003 Vols, they were loaded at linebacker. Omar Gaither moved into Simon's starting spot and recorded 92 tackles that fall in helping Tennessee post a 10-3 record and No. 15 national ranking. Gaither went on to become a starting linebacker in the NFL.
Another elite player was lost in 2004, when quarterback Erik Ainge suffered a shoulder injury on the last play of the first half in Game 8 against Notre Dame. The strong-armed freshman had led the Vols to a 6-1 record through seven games but they squandered their halftime lead against the Irish and lost 17-13. After edging past Vanderbilt and Kentucky to conclude the regular season, Tennessee lost to No. 3 Auburn in the SEC Championship game, then drilled Texas A&M 38-7 in the Cotton Bowl to conclude a 10-3 season. All things considered, the Big Orange responded reasonably well without its star quarterback.
The 2006 season saw star defensive tackle Justin Harrell tear a bicep in Game 2 against Air Force. He valiantly played with the injury in a 21-20 Game 3 loss to Florida before having surgery. Turk McBride assumed Harrell’s starting spot thereafter and performed well. Still, the defense was not as stout without Harrell, surrendering 28 points in a November loss to LSU and 31 a week later in a loss at Arkansas.
The loss of Harrell, a first-round pick of the Green Bay Packers the following spring, may have meant the difference between an 11-2 season and a 9-4 season.
So which of the above scenarios does the A.J. Johnson case most closely resemble? Probably Kevin Simon is most similar in terms of position, productivity and leadership. It's just too bad the Vols don't have an Omar Gaither waiting in the wings this time.