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Revisiting Josh Heupel’s History With Missouri

Heupel contributed to some incredible Missouri offenses…and also contributed to some of the Tigers’ worst losses ever.

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Alabama Gary Cosby Jr.-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel has experienced nearly everything that college football has to offer.

The Aberdeen, South Dakota native played quarterback for FCS power Weber State from 1996-98 but suffered an ACL injury that pushed him down the depth chart. After a brief stint at Snow Junior College in Utah, Heupel transferred to Oklahoma.

As a Sooner, Heupel was the Heisman runner-up in 2000 to Chris Weinke…but he got the last laugh. His Sooners took down Weinke’s No. 2 Florida State team by a score of 13-2 in the 2001 National Championship, and he finished with 6,852 passing yards, 50 touchdowns and 29 interceptions over two seasons with the Sooners.

Orange Bowl X Heupel

After being drafted by the Green Bay Packers in the 6th Round of the 2001 NFL Draft and briefly staying in the NFL, Heupel began an already lengthy coaching career. He started out as a graduate assistant at Oklahoma, then became Arizona’s tight ends coach in 2005. Following that, Heupel returned to coach quarterbacks at Oklahoma from 2006-10, then was the co-offensive coordinator and QB coach from 2011-14. He spent 2015 with Utah State as OC, then had a two-year stint at Missouri, which I will touch on more later.

Then, he moved on to take over for Scott Frost at UCF, leading the Knights to a 28-8 overall record from 2018-20. Of course, Heupel is now the head coach of Tennessee, having already beaten Mizzou by a combined score of 128-28 in two seasons. He has a laundry list of incredible QBs that he has helped mentor (Jason White, Sam Bradford, Landry Jones, Hendon Hooker, Drew Lock, McKenzie Milton, etc.), and his offenses have taken the SEC by storm on multiple occasions.

South Carolina v Missouri Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Heupel’s History At Mizzou

Barry Odom hired Josh Heupel to be his offensive coordinator on Dec. 17, 2015. The new head coach needed an offensive mind that he could rely on, as the vast majority of Odom’s background stemmed from defensive coaching. Heupel was that guy, and he entered a situation that suited his offensive style.

Despite the team’s overall record of 4-8 in 2016, the impact of Heupel was immediately felt. Drew Lock exploded as a sophomore for 3,399 yards and 23 touchdowns, thriving in Heupel’s fast-paced, pass-heavy offense. J’Mon Moore racked up 1,000 receiving yards and Damarea Crockett was a 1,000 yard rusher that season as well. Still, there were growing pains as the team adjusted to his system, which led to abysmal offensive showings against West Virginia (26-11), LSU (42-7) and Florida (40-14).

In 2017, everything clicked. Lock somehow eclipsed his ‘16 numbers, throwing for 3,964 yards and 44 touchdowns to just 13 interceptions. Ish Witter ran for over 1,000 yards, Larry Roundtree III tacked on 703, and Moore and Emmanuel Hall combined for nearly 2,000 receiving yards. The team as a whole averaged 37.5 points per game (13th best in the nation) and rallied from a 1-5 start to the season to finish 7-6 on the year. That included scoring 40 or more points in each of the team’s final six regular season games.

But, all good things must come to an end. UCF needed a replacement for the departed Frost, and Heupel was a perfect candidate to continue the tradition of high-powered offense in Orlando. However, he left before Mizzou’s bowl against Texas, to the ire of some Tiger players.

2021 vs. Tennessee (62-24)

In Heupel’s return to Faurot Field, he made sure Mizzou remembered how great his offenses were. His Vols scored 28 points in the first quarter and led 45-10 at halftime in a game that was never competitive.

Mizzou was whipped up front to the tune of 458 rushing yards, UT racked up 35 first downs and absolutely stifled the Tiger rushing attack by holding it to a meager 74 yards. Hendon Hooker had a great day (305 total yards, 4 TDs), and seven Tennessee rushers ran for 20+ yards. Mizzou was never able to catch up after UT’s dominant first half performance.

This game spelled the beginning of the end for Mizzou defensive coordinator Steve Wilks, who departed for the Carolina Panthers during the following offseason.

2022 @ Tennessee (66-24)

It would have been a tall order for Mizzou to walk into Neyland and take down a Tennessee team that was wildly upset after losing to Georgia, but not many people expected the Vols to expose Blake Baker’s unit the way that they did.

To this day, no team has scored more against a Baker-coached Mizzou defense. On this occasion, Tennessee threw for 460 yards and racked up 724 total yards of offense, scoring the final 38 points of the game after the Tigers drew to within four points at beginning of the third quarter. The sideline-to-sideline spread that Heupel puts out on the field dumbfounded Mizzou’s defense, and the Volunteers’ speedy receivers were able to dust the Tiger secondary.

With this being such a stark contrast to the manner in which UT beat the Tigers in ‘21, Heupel proved that he can beat his former employer in any way he pleases with this dominant performance.

Missouri v Tennessee Photo by Donald Page/Getty Images

What needs to change this time around

Following some early season struggles, the Tigers defense has steadily improved and turned into a great unit. That is in large part thanks to an increased amount of turnovers (4 forced in the past three games), improved pass-rush (14 sacks, 31 QB hurries over that same span), and better health across the board.

The Mizzou defense put forth top-tier performances against Kentucky and South Carolina, suffocating the ‘Cats in the final three quarters of that game and then holding SC to four field goals the next week. And, while Carson Beck and Co. did get into a solid rhythm at times last weekend, the Tiger defense was able to pressure him and limit the UGA rushing attack unlike any team has this season.

This is certainly a different Tennessee offense to years’ past, as Joe Milton has not consistently displayed the same accuracy and efficiency that Hooker did. Milton has only completed 28.3% of his passing attempts of 20+ yards downfield and has thrown all four of his interceptions from that distance. Effective vertical passing is essential in Heupel’s offense, and it has been lacking this season. It is worth noting that Milton has appeared to play his best ball of the season in recent performances against Alabama, Kentucky and UConn, and he is always a threat with his legs.

Speaking of running the ball, the UT ground game is dominant, with the three-headed monster of Jabari Small, Jaylen Wright and Dylan Sampson running behind an experienced offensive line. Any one of those players could start in another SEC offense, and they have ran for 528 yards in the past two games and rank third in the nation in rushing offense.

Blake Baker will be hell-bent on making up for last season’s struggles, as only LSU has come close to that level of exposing his normally-vaunted defense. To slow this offense down, the first step will be to win the battle up front. In UT’s two losses, the Vols were held to a combined 233 rushing yards against Florida and Alabama and did not have a rusher go for over 100 yards. In all of their wins, Tennessee ran for at least 228 yards.

If the Volunteer running game is contained, then all of the pressure is put on Milton to win the game with his arm. With his inconsistencies, that’s a gamble Mizzou will be willing to take. While the likes of Squirrel White and Ramel Keyton are talented receivers, KAD and Ennis Rakestraw are fully capable of matching up with them one-on-one.

Put the pressure on Milton, heat him up in the pocket and take advantage of the rushed decisions he might make as a result. Do that, and holding the Vols under 60 points for the first time since 2020 is well within reach.