The 1981 Tennessee squad was undefeated at Neyland Stadium but finished 2–4 on the road. The Volunteers lost to Georgia, USC, Alabama and Kentucky. They accepted an invitation to play in the Garden State Bowl against Wisconsin following their loss to Kentucky on November 21. The appearance was the first for Tennessee in the Garden State Bowl and their 23rd overall bowl appearance.
Tennessee drove 74-yards on their opening drive and Fuad Reveiz connected on a 22-yard field goal to give the Volunteers a 3–0 lead. On the following possession Wisconsin took a 7–3 lead after Jess Cole scored on a three-yard touchdown run. The lead was short-lived as Willie Gault returned the ensuing kickoff 87-yards to give Tennessee a 10–7 lead. The Volunteers extended their lead to 13–7 at the end of the first quarter after Reveiz connected on a 44-yard field goal. Tennessee extended their lead further to 21–7 at halftime after a 43-yard Steve Alatorre touchdown pass to Anthony Hancock and a successful two-point conversion in the second quarter. After a scoreless third quarter, the teams traded fourth quarter touchdowns. The Badgers scored on Randy Wright touchdown passes to Jeff Nault and Thaddus McFadden and the Volunteers on a six-yard Alatorre run.