Ranking wins all-time

Ranking wins is a risky business, especially when the season is not over.

A win that looms large at the time can be rendered almost meaningless if a team doesn't capitalize.

For example, when Tennessee beat Florida in Gainesville in 2001, I thought it was one of Phillip Fulmer's top three wins because it put the Vols in the SEC Championship game with a chance to play for the national title.

But when the Vols lost to LSU in the Georgia Dome and didn't even make a BCS bowl game, the win over the Gators lost some luster.

Having said that, it's clear that Tennessee's upset victory in overtime over LSU was monumental. Had the Vols lost at LSU, they would likely be headed for a 7-4 or even 6-5 season. Instead, the Vols remain in the SEC title hunt. If the Vols win the East, it will be in large part because they managed to win in Baton Rouge.

It was also big because it got some people off the back of Fulmer and offensive coordinator Randy Sanders. Fulmer has been criticized of late for not having won an SEC title since 1998. Sanders is the favorite whipping boy of UT fans who feel the offense should score 40 points per game and that every other play should result in a touchdown. Some of the same fans calling for Sanders' head also booed David Cutcliffe.

Most big wins come late in the season in bowl games or conference championship games. Some end losing streaks to rivals. Some build momentum.

So where does the LSU victory rank among Fulmer's all-time wins? Top five.

Here's a look at how I judge Fulmer's top 10 wins.

1. Fiesta Bowl national championship win against No. 2 Florida State on Jan. 4, 1999. It was Tennessee's first national title since 1951.

2. Overtime win over No. 2 Florida in 1998. If the Vols don't beat the Gators, Florida wins the East and Tennessee has no chance to finish No. 1.

3. SEC Championship game win over No. 11 Auburn in 1997. It was Fulmer's first SEC title and the Vols' first since 1990, ending a seven-year itch. It was also Peyton Manning's only SEC championship.

4. Overtime win at No. 4 LSU. It marked the biggest fourth-quarter comeback in Tennessee history (17 points) and marked the first time LSU has ever blown a 21-point lead at home. It also kept the Vols from a 0-2 start in the SEC East and kept alive all of their goals for this season. If all of your goals are gone before the end of September, it can make for a long year.

5. The 2001 win at No. 2 Florida. It was the first time Tennessee emerged victorious at Florida Field since 1971 and it helped usher Steve Spurrier to the NFL. UT was an 18-point underdog.

6. The 1995 win over No. 12 Alabama. It snapped a nine-year winless streak against the Crimson Tide and propelled the Vols to a 9-1 record over Alabama over the next decade.

7. The 1998 win over No. 10 and undefeated Arkansas, after trailing 21-3 in the second quarter. A must-win to remain in national title hunt. Clint Stoerner's gift fumble was a key play.

8. The 1996 Citrus Bowl win over No. 4 Ohio State. The Buckeyes might have been the most talented team Fulmer beat. UT ended the season No. 2 in the coaches' poll, No. 3 in the AP poll.

9. The 2002 win at No. 6 Miami. UT was a heavy underdog and already out of the SEC race. It took spunk to win at the Orange Bowl Stadium. No. 18 UT eventually moved up to No. 6 in the polls before losing the Peach Bowl.

10. The 2002 Florida Citrus Bowl win over No. 17 Michigan. It was not only a win over a storied football program, but a win after UT was upset in the SEC championship game. The Vols could have gone in the tank. They didn't. The victory gave Fulmer his third top five team.

You could make a strong case that the 1998 SEC championship win over Mississippi State belongs in the top 10. But the Bulldogs weren't a top 20 team. Each of the other wins came against top 20 teams, seven over top 10 teams. Only two of the wins were in Knoxville.

* Despite the win at No. 4 LSU, Fulmer's record against top 10 opponents leaves something to be desired.

Based on AP rankings, Fulmer is 13-17-1 against teams ranked in the top 10 at the time the Vols played them. He was 7-7-1 his first seven years, 6-10 since.

Here's Fulmer's record against top-10 teams:

Florida 3-9, Auburn 0-2, Nebraska 0-2, Georgia 3-2, Alabama 2-1-1, Miami 1-1, Ohio State 1-0, Arkansas 1-0, Florida State 1-0, LSU 1-0.

Fulmer is 38-24-1 against ranked teams. That means he's 25-7 against teams ranked 11-25.


Inside Tennessee Top Stories