JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Moments after winning MVP honors, Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs said what thousands of Vol fans were thinking in the wake of Friday’s smashing 45-28 TaxSlayer Bowl defeat of Iowa.
“This is momentum we can carry into the offseason,” he said. “It’s the start of something big.”
That comment is certainly understandable. The way Tennessee won – rolling to a 28-0 lead, then coasting – suggests that maybe the elusive corner has been turned and brighter days lie ahead for a program whose past seven seasons have produced records of 5-7, 7-6, 6-7, 5-7, 5-7, 5-7 and 7-6. Certainly, long-suffering Big Orange fans want to believe the Iowa game was confirmation that the 2015 Vols will be back to kicking butt and taking names.
The good news: They may be right. An impressive bowl victory often provides a shot of adrenalin that carries over into the season that follows.
The bad news: Based on recent Vol history, the program is just as likely to follow a big bowl win with a disappointing season.
A little research shows Tennessee posting eight truly impressive bowl wins over the past three decades. Four of those bowl wins were followed by memorable seasons featuring gaudy records and lofty national rankings. The other four big bowl wins, however, were followed by seasons that would have to be classified as disappointments.
Here’s a look at the aftermath of Tennessee’s biggest bowl wins over the past 30 years:
1986 Sugar Bowl: Tennessee 35, Miami 7: The second-ranked Hurricanes were supposed to manhandle the Vols but Tennessee played arguably the best game in program history. Sacking future Heisman winner Vinny Testaverde seven times and intercepting him three times, Tennessee battered the Hurricanes 35-7 to finish 9-1-2 and earn a No. 4 final ranking. Decimated by graduation, the 1986 Vols could not sustain the momentum, losing two of their first three games en route to a 7-5 season.
1993 Hall of Fame Bowl: Tennessee 38, Boston College 23: Phil Fulmer's debut as the full-time head coach saw the Vols roll to a 38-7 lead and coast to a victory that produced a 9-3 record and a No. 12 national ranking. The momentum carried over quite nicely as the 1993 Vols set a program record for scoring (40.3 points per game) en route to a 10-2 record and a second consecutive No. 12 national ranking. That ’93 team outscored the opposition 484-175.
1994 Gator Bowl: Tennessee 45, Virginia Tech 23: The Vols jumped out to a 35-7 first-half lead and were never seriously threatened. Peyton Manning sizzled in his first bowl game, and didn’t cool off in the season that followed. He guided the ’95 Vols to an 11-1 record and No. 3 national ranking.
1996 Citrus Bowl: Tennessee 20, Ohio State 14: The final margin wasn’t imposing but the ramifications were. Led by Heisman winner Eddie George, Ohio State ranked No. 1 for most of the season, so beating the Buckeyes solidified Tennessee's status as an elite program. Sure enough, the ’96 Vols followed up with a 10-2 record that produced another top-10 finish (No. 9).
1997 Citrus Bowl: Tennessee 48, Northwestern 28: Manning threw for 408 yards and four touchdowns as the Vols dominated, piling up 523 total yards to the Wildcats’ 285. That proved a harbinger of things to come as the ’97 Vols went 11-1 and won the SEC title before losing to Nebraska in the Orange Bowl and finishing seventh nationally.
1999 Fiesta Bowl: Tennessee 23, Florida State 16: Bowl games don’t get any bigger than this one, clinching the national championship for the Vols. The Big Orange couldn’t sustain the momentum, however, posting a disappointing 9-3 record in ’99 that concluded with a 31-21 loss to Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl.
2002 Citrus Bowl: Tennessee 45, Michigan 17: Casey Clausen passed for 393 yards and three touchdowns as the Vols annihilated their Big Ten foe. The momentum failed to carry over, however, as Clausen struggled through an injury-plagued 2002 season and the Vols staggered to an 8-5 record that ended with a 30-3 Peach Bowl loss to Maryland.
2005 Cotton Bowl: Tennessee 38, Texas A&M 7: The Vols looked awesome in hammering the Aggies but a quarterback controversy (Erik Ainge versus Rick Clausen) split the team the following fall. This led to the first losing season of Phil Fulmer’s coaching career, a 5-6 mark that cost offensive coordinator Randy Sanders his job.
After two years as Tennessee’s head coach, Butch Jones understands the need to walk a fine line: He must express optimism about the future to keep the fans from getting too down. At the same time, he must temper the enthusiasm so fans don’t expect too much too soon. That’s why he issued a comment following the bowl win that featured both positive and negative themes.
“We still have a long way to go,” he said, “but we’re making progress. We’ve talked about building the program brick by brick, and we put another brick into the foundation today.”
Maybe it will prove to be the kind of brick that spurs the 2015 Vols to contend for the SEC East title and a national ranking.
Butch, Dobbs, Maggitt post-game video
Derek Barnett with reporters