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Tennessee is the Nebraska of the SEC.
Both teams had extended golden ages in the 1990s. Both thrived in states not known for producing a ton of blue-chip talent. And both fired good coaches for not making them “great” and wound up setting themselves back far enough that it seems like a longshot of ever tasting that National Championship experience ever again.
However, unlike Nebraska - that relied on shady by-laws in acceptance rates and a ton of steroids to achieve their glory - Tennessee certainly has the program and infrastructure in place to compete in the modern game if they could just get out of their own way.
Here’s what Tennessee’s SP+ performance looks like since 2005:
If you ever wondered why Tennessee fans are so chesty, it’s because they’re still hanging on to the Phillip Fulmer run of 1992-2008 where they had Peyton Manning, won a National Championship, and were churning out elite-level teams regularly. After a slight slip-up in 2008, Fulmer was canned and replaced by Lane Kiffin. Yes, Lane Kiffin! He improved upon Fulmer’s last year but immediately jumped for the USC job, leaving the Vols with... Derek Dooley. Dooley was okay but was fired in ‘12 - his best year, actually! - for not getting Tennessee back to the Fulmer years. This lead to the Butch Jones and Jeremy Pruitt meathead years: consistent, elite recruiting with only a few good years on the field with never enough wins to even sniff the SEC East crown, let alone another Natty. Josh Heupel’s hire was mostly unheralded but, given the complete program turnaround in Year One, he has certainly reinforced that classic Volunteer confidence with a surprisingly good ‘21 campaign. The real trick, of course, is to maintain any sort of momentum at a school that seems to shed it frequently.
Here’s what Tennessee did last year:
Do you remember those Odom Missouri teams with Heupel as the OC? It often seemed like they either “had it” or they didn’t and the L’s fell accordingly. The early Odom squads had a lot of flaws that the ‘21 Tennessee squad did not share but...well, the Vols were either way better than their competition and won or were equal to the competition and lost. To wit:
- Tennessee vs. SP+ Top 35 Teams: 1-6
- Tennessee vs. SP+ 36th or Worse Teams: 6-0
Or, if you prefer a more simplistic metric:
- Tennessee vs. Teams With Winning Records: 2-5
- Tennessee vs. Teams With Losing Records: 5-1
Going 1-3 in one-score games also doesn’t help - and might hint at them being closer to 9 or 10 wins than 7 - but, still, that seems to be a more realistic look at the quality of a team that did finish 10th in SP+ and did surprise the college football world... but did so by dominating lesser competition and coming up short against similarly talented squads.
Josh Heupel - 2nd Year - 7-6 (4-4)
You might not know it from looking at him now but Heupel was a competent quarterback in college, playing at Oklahoma after a JUCO stint and earning All-American honors while leading the Sooners to the 2000 National Championship under first-year offensive coordinator Mark Mangino. “System quarterbacks” in the early 2000s were not cut out for long-term NFL contracts so Heupel quickly jumped into the coaching ranks, heading back to his alma mater to be quarterbacks coach for five years. That eventually led to him becoming co-offensive coordinator for four years before taking a one-year stint at Utah State which, of course, landed him the job that we know him the best for. He turned his Missouri gig into a 3-year run at UCF’s head coach, overseeing diminishing returns every single year before becoming the new Volunteer head man. Heupel’s “system offense” stigma and a massive transfer portal exodus lowered expectations considerably but now they are right back with crazy expectations after Coach Heupel became one of only four Tennessee coaches to win at least seven regular-season games in his first season. Whether Heupel can deliver on those increased expectations or not will be the determining factor of whether he’s there for three years or thirteen.
Alex Golesh - Offensive Coordinator/Tight Ends: I mean... yes, technically, Golesh is listed as Tennessee’s offensive coordinator but, well, you saw what I saw last year! The Volunteers were running the ‘16-’17 Missouri offense and it had Heupel’s signature all over it. Whatever roles and responsibilities Golesh has as the OC, it certainly isn’t writing the book or singularly calling plays, but hey, if it gets him a job somewhere else as a Heupel acolyte then good for him! The Volunteer offense will most likely stay exactly the same, regardless of who has the OC title, as long as Heupel is around.
Tim Banks - Defensive Coordinator: Banks has been a DC since ‘07 and has the type of résumé that every college football fan thinks every coordinator has: get your first coordinator start at a small school (Central Michigan), turn that in to a high-level G5 (Cincinnati), springboard to a lower-level P5 (Illinois), then land at a high level P5 (Penn State). He took the Tennessee opportunity to shed the “co-” designation of his coordinator job and did an admirable job in his first season in Knoxville. With a track record of improving overwhelmed defenses he certainly has the résumé to turn the Vol D into a monster once again.
Mike Ekeler - Special Teams Coordinator/Outside Linebackers
Joey Halzle - Quarterbacks
Jerry Mack - Running Backs
Kelsey Pope - Wide Receivers
Glen Elarbee - Offensive Line
Rodney Garner - Defensive Line
Brian Jean-Mary - Linebackers
Willie Martinez - Secondary
Alec Abeln - Offensive Analyst: Remember this guy? Abeln was a depth piece on those ‘16 and ‘17 Missouri offensive lines who got a few starts in places due to injury and general lack of bodies. He graduated after the 2017 season and looked to get into coaching, first joining the Ole Miss staff as a graduate assistant and now back with his old OC and o-line coach at Tennessee. He’s made it two years in Knoxville living off of a $25k salary, ramen noodles, and 23-hour days of tape grinding, so hopefully a position coach position opens up for him soon.
Do you want to know just how impactful Josh Heupel’s offense was to the Volunteers? Here’s a list of Tennessee’s SP+ offensive ranking since Butch Jones took over in 2013 as a comparison:
- 2013 - 63rd
- 2014 - 53rd
- 2015 - 31st
- 2016 - 15th
- 2017 - 83rd
- 2018 - 38th
- 2019 - 73rd
- 2020 - 74th
In 2021 the Volunteer offense ranked 7th in SP+ while scoring 39.3 points per game and setting single-season records in points, total yardage, and touchdowns. This isn’t some perennially moribund program like Vanderbilt or Rutgers or kansas, where breaking records is easy; no, this is a genuine blue-blood program (dormant, sure, but still) that has been excellent for long stretches of time...and Heupel rewrote the record books in his first year. Oh, and they return most of the best parts of that record-setting offense in ‘22, including quarterback, running back, and wide receiver.
Since joining Missouri, Heupel’s offenses have ranked 54th, 24th, 11th, 14th, 12th, and then 7th at Tennessee. For being a “gimmick” offense it certainly seems that DCs have yet to figure the gimmick out.
Quarterback - Hendon Hooker - Graduate Student
What can the Heupel offense do for you? Well, for Drew Lock, it can take a strong-armed blue-chipper that was broken in half as a freshman while being thrust into the starting quarterback role and turn him into a record-breaking touchdown throwing machine that gets drafted in the 2nd round. If you’re Dillon Gabriel, it can take an inaccurate, immobile freshman and turn him into 3,600+ yard passer with a 29-7 TD-INT ratio with a sterling 8.4 ANY/A. And, if you’re Hendon Hooker, you get transformed from a quarterback who was a check-down champ and morph it into a guy who surpasses his career passing total in one year and allows him to become the dual-threat the college football world always thought he could be.
Given the number of quarterbacks who transferred in and out in Heupel’s first season, I never though Hooker would be the guy to earn the QB1 mantle but, after a brief expedition with Michigan-transfer Joe Milton, Hooker took over a couple of weeks into the season and never looked back. The Heupel offense has never been hard to learn so a full offseason with the book shouldn’t do much for his development, it’s mostly whether SEC defenses have learned to adapt to the “triple option of the air” and if Hooker can stay ahead of those corrections.
Running Back - Jabari Small - Junior
In case you were wondering, no, Small was not the Tennessee running back who said they’d “have some fun” with Missouri’s defense; that was Tiyon Evans who transferred to Louisville in December. Small was injured early in the Missouri game and, therefore, didn’t get to have as much fun as his teammates did. However, he did finish the ‘21 campaign with 140 rushes (most on the team), 792 yards (2nd), and 9 touchdowns on the ground (1st). Hendon Hooker was the clear #2 rusher (131 rushes, 803 yards, 5 TDs) and their third most utilized runner, Jaylen Wright, also returns for 2022. The Vols also return four starters on the line but will be looking for a replacement for longtime right tackle Cade Mays.
Wide Receiver - Cedric Tillman - Redshirt Senior
Gone are Velus Jones and JaVonta Payton, two of the top three receivers from last year’s group, but Cedric Tillman was the best of those three with 87 targets, 64 catches, and 1,081 yards. He will be looked to steady a receiving corps that is mostly young and untested at this point but has plenty of potential. Given the fact that Heupel offenses tend to maximize talent regardless of experience or skill its a safe bet to think that the Vols will be fine here. Keep an eye on blue-chip freshmen Cameron Miller and Kaleb Webb.
The fun thing about being known as an offensive guru and having that offense put up a metric ton of points is that you can hide your defensive shortcomings fairly well. And, to be fair, Tim Banks’ defense wasn’t bad, per se - they did finish ranked 47th in SP+ - it’s just that they weren’t very good at anything. They operated well in standard downs, for sure, and managed 102 tackles for loss on the season, a school record! But were a bit of a liability in passing downs and red zone situations and, for all those TFLs they logged, very few were sacks, finishing with a pedestrian 6.7% sack rate. Part of that was the fact that the Vols were fielding essentially a brand new defense last year with a noticeable lack of play makers. But given the reputation of Banks, Tennessee’s recruiting acumen and an offensive pairing that only requires the defense to make one or two stops per game to win, I’m certain this unit will be fine and operational quickly.
Defensive Line - Byron Young - Senior
Matthew Butler was a revelation at defensive tackle last year but is now gone, leaving a bunch of rotational players in the middle but some names on the outside. Those names are edge rushers Tyler Baron - who entered the transfer portal but chose to return - and Byron Young, who lead the team in sacks last year. The best type of defense to pair with a warp-speed points-machine offense is one that focuses on havoc and turnovers and getting both Baron and Young to more consistently take down the QB would be a huge boost to this defense’s effectiveness.
Linebacker - Jeremy Banks - Redshirt Senior
Tennessee’s tackle machines were linebacker Aaron Beasley and Jeremy Banks, the latter of which started as a running back but has thrived as an inside linebacker. The two combined for 199 tackles and almost never came off the field so having both return is a huge boost. In addition, Banks was also an absolute terror in the pass rushing department; he wasn’t sent after the quarterback often but, when he went, he generated pressure 24% of the time and ended with a sack nearly 9% of the time (which is pretty dang good). His 5.5 sacks tied with the aforementioned Byron Young which, a.) shows you Banks’ potential and b.) shows how little sack production Tennessee’s defense produced.
Defensive Back - Jaylen McCollough - Senior
Theo Jackson and Alontae Taylor were the heart and soul of the Volunteer secondary but are both gone. Luckily the Vols still have Jaylen McCollough and Trevon Flowers who combined for 5 of Tennessee’s 13 interceptions on the year. Cornerback is going to be the real place of worry, however, and they’re banking on underused upperclassmen like Warren Burrell, Kamal Hadden, and Brandon Turnage to finally step up. They also took in a few JUCO transfers to beef up the position as well. Again, Heupel’s defense doesn’t need to snuff out offenses, instead just turn them over a few times. That’s about as easy assignment as you can get but youth against the pass could be the Achilles heel of accomplishing that goal.
So what does it all mean?
So how good is Tennessee, really? I’m not sure you can get an accurate answer based off one - or even two - years of on-the-field performance but don’t tell that to Volunteer fans. They’re already raising banners and planning on where the Heupel statue goes based off of how quickly he took Pruitt’s leftovers and transformed them into an offensive juggernaut.
My only hesitancy is the quality of teams they beat, as I pointed out above. They went 1-3 in one-possession games and lost almost every game they played against competition that was comparable to themselves. Does another year push them over the edge? Or is the idea just to get into close games and hope to win a few more than previously accomplished?
Missouri has to travel to Knoxville this year but will be doing so after a homestand against arch nemesis Kentucky whereas Tennessee will be returning home after a road trip to Athens, Georgia. It’s also the last home game for Tennessee as they close the year with two straight road games against South Carolina and Vanderbilt. What will the Vols be playing for at that point? Does Senior Day change anything? Do they have confidence after playing the Dawgs close or are looking to bounce back from a loss? It’ll be late in the season so its tough to project how any of this play out, but Tennessee finally has a clear identity to match their recruiting chops and certainly are in a better position to win games under their current leadership.