Vols and the polls

Sometimes, perception is reality. In the case of Tennessee's football program, the perception is that the Vols don't do well when they are ranked high in the preseason and they overachieve when less is expected. There is a touch of truth to the perception.

Under Phillip Fulmer, Tennessee has been picked to finish in the top 10 nine times and managed to do so six. But on two occasions, the Vols bombed. They were preseason No. 4 in 2002 and didn't finish in the top 25. And they were a preseason No. 3 last year and had a losing record, going 5-6.

In 1998, the year Tennessee won the national championship, the Vols were No. 10 in the preseason.

Other years, prognosticators have been right on target. Tennessee was picked 10th in 1993 and finished 11th. The Vols were No. 5 in 1997 and wound up seventh. In 2003, the AP had UT No. 12 before the season, No. 15 after. And in 2004, UT was projected to finish 14th and came in 13th.

What's interesting is that each year Tennessee finished in the top 10 under Fulmer, it was picked to finish in the top 10. And each of the four times the Vols were projected to finish out of the top 10, they did.

This year, three of five preseason magazines have Tennessee in the top 25 while another has Fulmer's team in the top 30. Phil Steele has Tennessee No. 12 in the nation. Lindy's has the Vols No. 28. The Sporting News has Tennessee No. 18 and Athlon picks the Vols 20th. Street & Smith doesn't have UT in the top 25 and doesn't expand its list.

Figuring Street & Smith and Lindy's to be on a similar page, the Vols would average out to about 21.

Based on previous history with preseason polls, Tennessee should finish around 10th. But given what happened last year, it's hard to see the Vols climbing into the top 10.

I've got Tennessee going 9-3, but I wouldn't be surprised at 8-4. Heck, I wouldn't be surprised at 7-5, given the difficulty of the schedule.

Tennessee could lose to California, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, LSU and Arkansas. Of those six, I'm picking Tennessee to win half. I'd be surprised if the Vols can win four, but I wouldn't be surprised if they lose four.

Why? Because Tennessee has more questions than answers heading into Fulmer's 14th full season. How will quarterback Erik Ainge perform? What about the health of the running backs? Can the offensive line make improvement? Are the receivers ready to play to their potential? How difficult will it be to replace six starters on the front seven?

Here's a look at how Tennessee was ranked in the preseason and how they finished in the AP Poll under Fulmer:

Year Preseason Final Poll

1993 10 11

1994 13 18

1995 8 3

1996 2 9

1997 5 7

1998 10 1

1999 2 9

2000 13 25

2001 8 4

2002 4 --

2003 12 15

2004 14 13

2005 3 --

Several times during Johnny Majors' 16-year run, Tennessee delivered when least expected and faltered when projected to do well.

None of Majors first nine teams were ranked in the preseason top 20, and none finished in the AP top 20. The breakthrough came in 1985 when the unranked Vols climbed the charts to a final ranking of No. 4.

In 1986, UT opened at No. 10 but went 7-5 and finished unranked.

In 1987, UT was No. 17 at the start, No. 14 at the finish.

In 1988, UT began at 18 and had a losing record.

In 1989, an unranked UT team shocked folks with a No. 5 final ranking.

In 1990, the polls nailed it – UT was No. 8 at the start and finish.

In 1991, the Vols began 11 and wound up 14.

In 1992, the Vols went from No. 22 to No. 11 with a bowl win in Tampa.

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