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Tennessee rises to highest ranking in nearly two decades, but can it get any higher?

Tennessee is ranked No. 8 in the latest Associated Press poll, up three spots from No. 11 last week, and the highest the Vols have been ranked in 16 years.

The move up in the AP poll was mostly due to losses by previously-unbeaten Oklahoma and Arkansas. The Sooners fell from No. 6 to No. 18 after their 41-34 loss to Kansas State, and the Razorbacks dropped from No. 10 to No. 20 after losing to Texas A&M 23-21.

But Tennessee also moved ahead of unbeaten Oklahoma State following a 38-33 win over Florida.

Tennessee is only 38 points ahead of the Cowboys, but the Vols are also only eight points behind No. 7 Kentucky, and only 17 points behind No. 6 Southern Cal.

Both of those teams struggled on Saturday, with the Wildcats defeating Northern Illinois 31-23, and the Trojans defeating Oregon State 17-14.

The Top 5 looks like this: Georgia, Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan and Clemson, in that order. NC State rounds out the Top 10, moving up two spots after its 41-10 win over UConn.

Tennessee’s move up in the poll represents the first time the Vols have been ranked in the Top 10 since the 2016 season. That year, under Butch Jones, Tennessee was ranked No. 9 when the season began, slipped to No. 17 after needing overtime to survive Appalachian State in the season-opener, then climbed back to No. 9 heading into a game against Texas A&M. Three straight losses knocked the Vols out of the poll, however. They finished the season ranked No. 22 after a 38-24 win over Nebraska in the Music City Bowl.

By surpassing Oklahoma State, Tennessee has achieved its highest ranking since 2006, when Phillip Fulmer was still the Vols’ coach. Coming off their first losing season since 1988, the Vols opened the season at No. 23, then quickly moved up following a 35-18 upset of California in the season-opener. 

Tennessee would go on to climb as high as No. 7 in the polls that season. The Vols dropped one spot after struggling to beat Alabama, 16-13. Ironically, it was the last time Tennessee defeated the Crimson Tide. The Vols finished that season ranked No. 25 after losing three of their last five games, including a 20-10 loss to Penn State in the Outback Bowl.

The Vols’ schedule is about to get much tougher, with a trip to Baton Rouge to face LSU on Oct. 8, followed by a visit from Alabama on Oct. 15. After home games against Tennessee-Martin and Kentucky, the Vols will be back on the road to face top-ranked Georgia in Athens on Nov. 5.

Tennessee will then close out the season against what are arguably the three weakest teams in the SEC: Missouri at home, and South Carolina and Vanderbilt on the road.

With their highest ranking in 16 years — and after beating Florida for just the second time in 17 years — fans might be wondering just how high the Vols can get in the polls. 

The obvious answer is not much higher, considering Tennessee’s chances of continuing its unbeaten stream are quite low. ESPN’s College Football Power Index gives the Vols only an 8% chance of winning the SEC East, and projects three losses. 

If Tennessee loses three games, the most likely candidates include LSU, Alabama and Georgia. ESPN’s computer rankings give the Vols just a 41% chance of defeating the Tigers in two weeks. After that, the algorithm gives Tennessee only a 19% chance of beating Alabama.

In other words, Tennessee could very easily go from 4-0 to 4-2 before catching a break against Martin next month.

Meanwhile, can the Vols get any higher in the polls before their trip to Tiger Stadium? If any team currently ranked ahead of Tennessee is to lose, the most likely candidate is Kentucky, which faces No. 14 Ole Miss this weekend. The next most likely candidate is Clemson, which faces NC State. However, a win over the Tigers would almost certainly boost the Wolfpack past the Vols in the poll.

A narrow win over Ole Miss likely wouldn’t hurt Kentucky’s standing in the Top 25. And while the Vols are within striking distance of Southern Cal, should the Trojans struggle against Arizona State, the Sun Devils are a team in disarray after firing Herm Edwards last week.

It seems likely that Tennessee goes to LSU as the nation’s No. 8 team at best. Should they move up two spaces, however, the Vols will have their highest ranking since 2005, when they opened the season at No. 3 before struggling with UAB in the season-opener.

History hasn’t been kind to the Vols when it comes to Top 10 rankings since winning the 1998 national championship. The 2016 team needed a fumble recovery in the end zone to survive Appalachian State’s upset bid in overtime, 20-13. Then, after Tennessee climbed from No. 17 back into the Top 10, they lost back-to-back games as the nation’s No. 9 team: a 45-38 loss in double-overtime to Texas A&M, and a 49-10 shellacking at the hands of top-ranked Alabama.

The 2006 team defeated Alabama, 16-13, as the No. 7 team, and knocked off South Carolina, 31-24, as the No. 8 team. But then the Vols lost to LSU, 28-24, and wouldn’t return to the Top 10 for another 10 years.

The 2005 team struggled to beat UAB, 17-10, as the No. 3 team, and lost to Florida, 16-7, as the No. 5 team. They pulled off an improbable overtime upset of LSU in Death Valley, winning 30-27 in overtime, and then defeated Ole Miss, 27-10, before falling to Georgia, 27-14, and dropping out of the Top 10.

The 2004 team reached the Top 10 only to fall to eventual SEC champion Auburn, 34-10. The Vols returned to the Top 10 after four consecutive wins — including a 19-14 upset of Georgia — but promptly lost to Notre Dame, 17-13, in a game that saw freshman quarterback Erik Ainge break his collar bone. 

The 2003 team climbed to No. 8, then struggled to beat South Carolina in overtime, 23-20, before losing at Auburn, 28-21. Later in the season, the Vols got back into the Top 10 and won three straight games against Mississippi State, Vanderbilt and Kentucky before falling to Clemson in the Peach Bowl to end the season.

The 2002 team defeated Wyoming and MTSU to open the season, then lost to Florida, 30-13. Later, the Vols defeated Arkansas in six overtimes, 41-38, before falling to Georgia, 18-13.

Since the 2001 season, Tennessee is 13-11 as a Top 10 team. And in the 13 games the Vols won, they covered the spread only four times.

Despite being the higher-ranked team, Tennessee may very well be an underdog going into the Oct. 8 game in Baton Rouge.

Ben Garrett
Ben Garrett
Ben Garrett is Independent Herald editor and publisher. Follow him on Twitter, @benwgarrett, or email him at bgarrett at ihoneida dot com.

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