Welcome back to Rock M Nation’s annual opponent preview series of the upcoming season. Each week we will break down one opponent from the schedule in chronological order. Given that rosters are ever fluid - and this is done by a hobbyist rather than a pro - there could be some errors in history and current roster makeup. All mistakes are done on purpose and with ill intent because I don’t like you or your team.
Catch up on previous 2023 opponent previews!
I’m writing about Tennessee for the fifth time now and I’m pretty sure every single time I have compared them to Missouri’s old hegemonic nemesis, Nebraska.
Both schools seemed like fallen empires that had the sport pass them by years ago, and yet still claimed relevancy and potential thanks to extended runs of greatness in the 1980s and 1990s.
But whereas Nebraska had their championship-caliber runs powered by an enthusiastic bending of NCAA rules and a unique, first-of-its-kind strength-and-conditioning program
that also injected their players with enough steroids to incapacitate a horse, Tennessee was a sleeping power that had all the infrastructure and resources necessary to succeed, but insisted on hiring the biggest, dumbest coaches to run their program.
That situational ineptitude in the lead chair of the Volunteer football program seems to have been remedied:
Josh Heupel took over the Vols in 2021 and immediately made them 13 points better in SP+ but only managed a 7-6 record due to a few close losses and no shows against blue bloods. In 2022 he improved them by another 11 points, beat ‘Bama, and went on a transcendent 11-2 campaign, finishing as the best Tennessee team of the millennium (according to SP+):
As a comparison, since 2000, Missouri’s top three teams were 24 points better than the average college football program in 2008 (Pinkel), 21.4 in 2007 (also Pinkel), and 20.8 in 2018 (Odom)...and Heupel’s second Tennessee outfit was 28 points better than the average team in 2022.
Now, it is true that Tennessee did close out the last five weeks of the year with a 3-2 record - including a stupefying ass kicking to South Carolina - but they do seem to have the system, identity, and at least middle-of-the-road competence in its leadership to keep an establish trajectory as one of the SEC’s elite teams.
Now, they just have to keep doing it.
Josh Heupel - 3rd Year - 18-8 (10-6)
Missouri fans got a two-year window to look into the magnificent offense that Josh Heupel has successfully deployed at his last three stops and, frankly, he hasn’t changed it much since then:
Heupel’s offensive scheme is a quick, no-huddle attack that uses simplified if/then decision-making reads for the quarterback who can throw to skill position players whose main quality is “FAST”. That quickness in reads and execution allows the offensive line to only have to hold blocks for a few seconds, giving less-conditioned defenses hell in trying to keep up in their subs and assignments. and negates some intrinsic athletic advantages that better recruiting teams can have over the Vols. And, to be sure, Tennessee recruits well but it’s a system where players are asked to do a lot less and, therefore, rep what they do a lot more often than a player who has a deeper book and/or skillset to practice.
I won’t pretend to understand the nuances of the system but smarter football minds say that the Heupel offense is, essentially, the throwing-the-ball version of the triple-option. That is, the manner that it simplifies all the execution and keeps elite defenses away from what they do best is why it works so well. It is stoppable, mind you, but it takes a lot of depth and some havoc luck, something that not even Alabama has successfully done on a consistent basis against these Vols.
Joey Halzle - Offensive Coordinator: Halzle has been with Heupel since Oklahoma in ‘09, and followed him to Utah State, then Missouri, then UCF, and now Tennessee. He was the quarterbacks coach last year which means, even with former OC Alex Golesh now off to save the floundering USF program, the replacement is a guy who knows the system and game flow particularly well and should experience zero drop-off.
Tim Banks - Defensive Coordinator: After one “get right” year in 2021, when the 34th-ranked defense he inherited from Jeremy Pruitt slipped to 47th, last year he got it right back on track with a 30th-ranked finish. Banks is damn good at what he does and we should all hope he gets the call-up to a head coaching vacancy at the end of this year so Tennessee can hire some guy who sucks to replace him.
Mike Ekeler - Special Teams Coordinator
Jerry Mack - Running Backs
Kelsey Pope - Wide Receivers
Alec Abeln - Tight Ends: Last year the former Missouri offensive lineman was an offensive analyst so congrats are in order for the former U-City lineman. This year he’s in charge of tight ends but it seems he and Heupel have a close working relationship as he’s been with his former OC at almost every step of his coaching progression. It’ll be interesting to see how long he stays with Heuepel and - if he does stick around - if he gets the next nod as a coordinator.
Glen Elarbee - Offensive Line: My second-favorite Missouri offensive line coach of all time, Elarbee excels in finding guys who can max out in the Heupel-system. He doesn’t have any (if at all) experience running with offenses that are slow or more run-oriented but he has a niche and rocks out with it.
Rodney Garner - Defensive Line
Brian Jean-Mary - Inside Linebackers
Willie Martinez - Secondary
The Tennessee offense has worked for the past two years and, unless defensive coordinators have finally found enough tape and practice time to counter it, will probably continue to work for the near future. The 2nd-best offense of 2022 really only had two demerits —a pedestrian explosive rate on the ground and one of the most penalized offensive lines in the country— but easily made that up with an explosive passing attack and...well, everything else, really. The problem lies with the loss of quarterback Hendon Hooker, Darnell Wright/Javontez Spraggins/Jerome Carvin from the offensive line, and two of their top three receivers. However, if you believe in the system making these guys who they are, then there shouldn’t be an issue. Right?
Quarterback - Joe Milton III - Graduate
If you’ve heard the name “Joe Milton” at any point in the past five years then you probably know that he can throw a 60-yard rocket while sitting on his knees. All the arm power in the world is great of course, but Milton’s accuracy leaves something to be desired, especially since last year was his most accurate year ever at 64% and Hendon Hooker was sitting in the 68-69% range over the past two years. Does that mean all-world quarterback recruit Nico Iamaleava gets some playing time? Possibly. Iamaleava was an early enrollee and apparently dazzled the spring practice fans with a dizzying array of throws and scrambles that reinforced his standing as the second-best quarterback of his recruiting class. But young Nico is a freshman and Joe is on his graduate year tour; they could split time - especially with the “future of the program” ready to roll - but it’s nice to have a problem of two quality quarterbacks who are both on your team.
Running Back - Jabari Small - Senior
They might not be the explosive home-run hitters of the skill position group but the Volunteer running backs finished as the 12th-best rushing attack in the country thanks to extreme efficiency and a knack for not getting hit before crossing the line of scrimmage. Both Jabari Small and Jaylen Wright return, and those two alone combined for 303 of Tennessee’s 514 carries and 1,609 of Tennessee’s 2,621 yards (Hendon Hooker was 104/430 of that, btw). The Vols only lost two running backs who barely saw the field so they’re in good shape to be another efficient machine in ‘23.
Wide Receiver - Bru McCoy - Redshirt Senior
Look, I’m not saying a single team can lose Jalin Hyatt and Cedric Tillman and be better off for it. But I am saying that Heupel’s offensive system can make stars out of any receiver who’s got some speed and can run the hell out of a crossing route. Former 5-star athlete Bru McCoy - he formally of both Texas and USC - finished as the second-most targeted receiver from last year’s group and should be looked to lead the receiving corps this year. Oregon transfer Dont’e Thornton should also make a positive, immediate impact as could blue-chip freshman Nathan Leacock. It’s a Heupel offense: the next passing offense of his that stinks will be his first.
When you have a unit that’s so dominating and so unique in its style, the real interesting investigation is to the other side of the ball that has to play with that dynamo. And, to be sure, the Volunteer offense was very good, finishing 30th in SP+ while having to play the fifth-most snaps of any defense in the country and an average of 13 drives per game (the median number of drives last year for college football as a whole was 11.6). So how did they do it? By making opponents take a lot of plays to move a little bit and then minimizing points given up in scoring position. The Vols ranked 7th against the pass and 23rd against the run but would give up 3-4 yard gains in order to prevent an opponent turning into the Tennessee offense themselves. And while the Tennessee efficiency numbers are yucky, they thrived once the offense crossed their 40-yard line, giving up an 11th-best 3.4 points per scoring opportunity. It’s a great style that can frustrate the hell out of opposing teams, watching the Volunteer offense zip around and finish with touchdowns while your guys plod along and finish with a field goal. We’ll see if that style continues this year or Tennessee gets more into the havoc-side of defense.
Defensive Line - Tyler Baron - Senior
Tennessee loses Byron Young and Omari Thomas but returns every other lineman who finished with more than 235 snaps, including edge rusher Tyler Baron. To be fair, Byron Young was Tennessee’s best pass rusher but Baron did it more than anyone else, even if he only finished with 2.5 sacks. If he can get his pressure rate up then the sacks will follow, and since the Vols only imported a defensive tackle from the portal, it’s likely that the returning edge rushers will once again be the rotation for ‘23.
Linebacker - Aaron Beasley - Senior
Tennessee’s defensive line was the main havoc engine last year but one guy nearly outproduced their havoc rate on his own: linebacker Aaron Beasley. Beasley had 19 runs stuffed at or behind the line and led the team with a 3% havoc rate (for reference, last year Ty’Ron Hopper was at 2.9%). The Vols lost a few linebackers to the portal but brought in a thumper from BYU named Kennan Pili. I can imagine a scenario where DC Tim Banks starts unleashing Beasley to supplement the edge rush but, even if he didn’t, Beasley is a weapon no matter where he lines up.
Defensive Back - Jaylen McCollough - Senior
Tennessee’s secondary was excellent last year and Jaylen McCollough led the defense in total snaps and was second on the team in total tackles. McCollough was a play-near-the-line type of safety as he recorded four TFLs and 3 run stuffs, but the secondary only loses one guy and returns nearly everybody else. It's hard to imagine a world where the Vols get worse in pass defense and, as a reminder, they were the 7th-best secondary in the country last year.
So what does it all mean?
Man, this Missouri schedule is straight-up nasty in the back half of the year. The Tigers will play Georgia in Athens, come home to play Tennessee and then Florida, then travel to Arkansas. Meanwhile, Tennessee will have just got done annihilating UConn (a safe assumption on my part) before heading to Columbia and then facing Georgia the next week.
The question for any team that gets the “SCHEME TEAM” label slapped on to them is if the players make the scheme or the scheme makes the players. Schemes can be studied, figured out, and beat so the players need to be good, too. And while Tennessee recruits very well, it’ll be interesting to see what Heupel’s offense looks like with a guy who’s less accurate and a receiving corps that doesn’t have two NFL receivers on the outside.
Heupel is a good coach and his system is designed to make college defenders wrong more often than not. But Blake Baker is a good DC and getting a second crack without the dynamic players the Vols featured last year could be the difference.
Tennessee has had Missouri’s number the last few years. It’ll be interesting of the Tigers keep it close or, hell, even beat them.
Besides, South Carolina did it. Why not Mizzou?