It’s not hard to find college football writers who are predicting big things for Tennessee in 2016. The way the Vols used a collection of young talent to dismantle Northwestern in the Outback Bowl on Friday makes it easy to imagine that next season Tennessee could be on its way to an even bigger bowl.
Yet those using the Vols’ postseason performance this year as the main reason to suggest Tennessee is on the rise for next year should be careful, because bowl games have proven to be misleading in the past.
Think back to the end of last season when Arkansas got a win over its regional rival Texas in the Texas Bowl. It was a game so satisfying for the Razorbacks, that Arkansas coach Bret Bielema called the feeling that accompanied the victory, “borderline erotic.” The media also took note of the way Arkansas finished the season. AP Poll voters awarded the Razorbacks the No. 18 spot in this year’s preseason poll, although Arkansas had only won a total of four SEC games in the previous three seasons, combined. Unfortunately, Arkansas was proven to be overrated by poll voters, as it lost four of its first six games.
A similar story unfolded in 2014 when Oklahoma was ranked No. 4 in the AP Preseason Poll, on the heels of a crushing defeat of Alabama in the Sugar Bowl at the end of the 2013 season. The popular narrative from the media became: Any team that could finish its season dominating the Crimson Tide was set to do big things the following year, but that turned out not to be true for the Sooners. Oklahoma lost five games in 2014, and in each one of those games it was a point-spread favorite.
Of course, the best example of overrating a team in the preseason because of its performance in the previous year’s bowl game may come from one of Tennessee’s biggest rivals. UGA finished the 2007 season by annihilating Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl. Preseason poll voters saw fit to make UGA no. 1 to start the 2008 season. The Bulldogs lost three times that year, though, and never came close to fulfilling the potential suggested at the end of the year before.
Does the same fate await Tennessee?
It’s obviously too early to tell. Maybe the bowl victory over Northwestern is evidence of a team that has matured and is ready to take the next step toward a championship. However, history suggests making a grand prediction like that on the basis of just one bowl game is a mistake.
The way Tennessee played in the Outback Bowl makes it easy to forget that Butch Jones made some crucial coaching errors late in games during the regular season that quite possibly cost his team some wins. It’s also easy to forget that Joshua Dobbs is still something less than a complete quarterback. And when the Vols were beating up on the Wildcats, no one was thinking about the fact that Tennessee still hasn’t beaten its SEC East rival Florida in 11 years, and hasn’t beaten its arch nemesis Alabama in nine seasons. Yet none of those facts should be overlooked.
The bottom line is that Tennessee fans are right to be excited about the way their team finished the season, but the Outback Bowl was just another step in the process. The only thing truly earned by the team’s win over Northwestern is praise from the media.
The Vols should already be aware of this based on what happened after the convincing win over Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl at the end of last season. The offseason was filled with compliments for the program, but those compliments turned to criticism once the season began and Tennessee lost four times. It will be interesting to see if the Vols can do a better job next season of earning the acclaim they are already receiving.