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Even in the “rent-a-win” games, Vols must improve

By: Zac Strickland (Junior Staff Writer, All Vol Call in Show)



A Georgia State ball carrier gallops into the endzone, leaving Tennessee defenders in his wake.
Photo | Saturday Down South


As most of us know all too well, 2008 was a fateful year in Tennessee Volunteer football history, and is widely considered to be the year in which the program’s seemingly endless tailspin truly began in earnest. Since then, the long, dubious streaks of futility at the hands of bitter rivals (and top 10 teams) have been well documented. The increased struggles in beating lower-tier SEC competition, that of which Vols teams of old used to effortlessly dismantle, have also been recognized, much to the chagrin of the Orange faithful.


Seeing as these teams are annual mainstays on Tennessee’s schedule, most of which carry some degree of animosity between schools, these games are often memorable, and results in rivalry games can be easily tracked and compared from one year to the next.


But what of the Bowling Green’s of the world? Such teams are usually overlooked on the schedule, viewed as nothing more than an opportunity to tune up for tougher opponents and give some game reps to younger players and walk-ons. The game is generally forgotten by most within hours of its conclusion, and the opponent is never seen again, at least not for the next 10 years or so.


These non conference matchups are generally referred to colloquially as “rent-a-win” games, where the larger school (in this case UT) will pay the smaller school to travel to their city (Knoxville) and play a game, with the expectation normally being a lopsided outcome in favor of the big boys.

As a self-admitted stats and numbers junkie, I decided to take a deeper dive into Tennessee’s performance against “rent-a-win” opponents since 2008 to see if the Vols were routinely giving these teams the beatdown they collected checks for, or if they were underachieving against these opponents just like the rest. (Spoiler: the results conclusively answer this question.)


In this time period, Tennessee has paid 35 teams to play in their backyard, which is just a touch under 3 per year (2020 is omitted). With a few exceptions, most of these 35 teams were vastly outmatched talentwise and shouldn’t have been expected to remain competitive against the Vols.


For the sake of this research, I categorized these 35 games into 3 categories. They are roughly defined as follows, although I do take the liberty of making a few slight tweaks. Some games were borderline but I made executive decisions and for the sake of conciseness I won’t justify them all here.


- Solid wins: UT wins by 30+ and thoroughly dominates. This should be the norm.

- Unconvincing wins: UT wins by about 15-30 points. Suboptimal play but no real threat of losing. Still apparent UT is the better team. Around one of these per year is understandable.

- Shameful performances: Losses, near-losses, or total atrocities. These are never ok.

Let’s break down Tennessee’s performance in these games.

Solid wins (15): ‘08 UAB 35-3, ‘09 W Kentucky 63-7, ‘10 UT Martin 50-0, ‘11 Cincinnati 45-23, ‘11 Buffalo 41-10, ‘12 GA State 51-13, ‘13 Austin Peay 45-0, ‘14 Utah St 38-7, ‘14 UT Chatt 45-10, ‘15 W Carolina 55-10, ‘16 TN Tech 55-0, ‘17 Indiana St 42-7, ‘18 ETSU 59-3, ‘19 UT Chatt 45-0, ‘19 UAB 30-7.


Unconvincing wins (11): ‘09 Ohio 34-23, ‘11 Montana 42-16, ‘11 MTSU 24-0, ‘12 Akron 47-26, ‘13 W Kentucky 52-20, ‘13 S Alabama 31-24, ‘14 Ark St 34-19, ‘15 Bowling Grn 59-30, ‘15 N Texas 24-0, ‘17 S Miss 24-10, ‘18 UTEP 24-0.


Shameful performances (9): ‘08 N Illinois 13-9, ‘08 Wyoming 7-13 LOSS, ‘10 UAB 32-29 2OT, ‘12 Troy 55-48, ‘16 AppState 20-13 OT, ‘16 Ohio 28-19, ‘17 UMass 17-13, ‘18 Charlotte 14-3, ‘19 GA State 30-38 LOSS.


Here are a few extra (not so) fun facts:

- Since 2008, the Vols have won all their rent-a-win games by 12+ points in only 3 seasons.

- There have been more losses/single-digit wins (9) than wins by over 35 points (8).

- The most common margins of victory are 7, 24, and 45 points, with 3 occurrences each.

- The average margin of victory is around 24.5, with an average score of 37-13.

- Alabama has only had two rent-a-wins that they beat by less than 24 in the same time span (’08 Tulane 20-6, ’17 Colorado State, 41-23).

- UT has the same amount (2) of losses.

- 5 of UT’s 9 “shameful” games have come within the past 5 years.

Digging deeper into UT’s recent history of rent-a-win opponents reveals startling levels of underachievement. This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone following the program, but it certainly is disappointing. In many ways, the inability to consistently assert dominance against overmatched teams (only 15 solid wins in 35 games) is just as telling as the non-competitiveness against the upper echelon teams.


It’s no secret that Josh Heupel has a lot of work to do to rebuild this program from the ashes. Many people say that his UT career will truly begin week 4 in the Swamp, or week 2 when the Vols host ACC foe Pittsburgh. In reality, it starts on Thursday against Bowling Green.


Before this program can even think about going into Gainesville, Athens, or Tuscaloosa and winning, they need to prove they can beat teams they should beat, and blow out teams they should blow out. There’s no better way to cleanse the palate of an embattled, weary, cynical fanbase than a therapeutic 50-point win against a lower-level opponent. Although the overall results likely won’t be very impressive this year, if UT can make a habit of convincingly winning against opponents the likes of Bowling Green, Tenn. Tech and South Alabama, it may be a telltale sign of a recovering program.


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