Most of our top five comes from the rebuilding portion of the Johnny Majors era when Tennessee's football program had reached its nadir. Majors coached teams at UT were 6-6-3 in openers and 5-1-2 in the last eight years after going 1-5-1 in openers the first seven years.
So without further explanation or rumination Rocky Top News presents Tennessee's five worst opening games of the last four decades. (Word of warning: you might want to keep a bucket handle.)
(No. 1) 1981: Tennessee at Georgia — The Vols entered this game after a disappointing 5-6 season in 1980 that began with a 16-15 home loss to UGA. In retrospect, it was one of the better games Tennessee played that injury-plagued season since the Bulldogs went on to win the national title. Any thoughts of gaining revenge quickly evaporated in the most one-sided UT football loss in modern history — 44-0. Every Dog had his day on this September afternoon and they weren't called off until the carnage was complete. This opener is No. 1 with a bullet which the Vols took right between the eyes. By the way, UT lost the next week to USC by a count of 43-7 but remarkably recovered to finish with an 8-4 record, including a win in the Garden State Bowl. Majors coached teams were nothing if not resilient.
(No. 2) 1982: Tennessee vs. Duke — Losing your season opener at home to Duke is bad enough, but being defeated by a Blue Devil team coached by Steve Spurrier (Duke's offensive coordinator 1980-82) was like rubbing salt into an open wound. Yes, it was close (25-24) but that was hardly a moral victory for a Big Orange football nation hungry for big-time success. Hopes were elevated entering 1982 after the Vols won eight of their last 10 in 1981, but in the one-step-forward, two-steps-back pattern established in the 1980s they went on to finish the year 6-5-1, losing to Vanderbilt 28-21 to end the regular season and 28-22 to Iowa in the Peach Bowl. Spurrier returned to Knoxville as head coach at Duke in 1988 to knock off Tennessee 31-26. The Vols avenged that defeat the next season, 28-6.
(No. 3) 1988: Tennessee at Georgia — This was the first meeting between the Dogs and Vols since the infamous 1981 blowout. This one wasn't as bad (28-17) but it was a portent of something much more sinister as it triggered a string of six straight setbacks that season, the last losing season UT has suffered. During that drought, Tennessee was outscored 221 to 102. Remarkably, the Vols bounced back to win 15 of its next 16 contests and only lost once over its next 21 games going into the 1990 season.
(No. 4) 1976: Tennessee vs. Duke — Duke didn't just bedevil Majors. In 1976, the Blue Devils ventured to Neyland Stadium and toppled Tennessee head coach Bill Battle's last team to the tune of 21-18. The talent level at UT had dropped precipitously and the program would soon reach rock bottom. The Vols went on to finish 6-5 that season, salvaging a winning record with a 13-10 victory over Vanderbilt after suffering a 7-0 defeat to Kentucky in Knoxville. But it wasn't enough to save Battle who was sent packing with a 59-22-2 record on The Hill. However he was only 13-10 the last two years and Tennessee's ship was clearly taking on water.
(No. 5) 1977: Tennessee vs. California — There was renewed optimism in Big Orange Country after Johnny came marching home following a national championship season at Pittsburgh in 1976. Majors signed the No. 1 class in the country that year and the infusion of young talent along with a crack coaching staff was expected to turn UT's football fortunes around quickly. They didn't. The 27-17 home loss to a so-so California team signaled the struggles that lay ahead. How bad was it? Well, Majors first team went 4-7 which is the most losses Tennessee has ever suffered in one season throughout its 113-year history. The Vols only had one winning season in Majors' first five years on the job. (And you thought losing consecutive Peach Bowls was bad.)
Okay you remove the clothes pin from your nose now, Unless, of course, you'd care to share your opinion on UT's worst start ever.