The Tennessee Volunteers faced yet another coaching re-build in 2021. By all accounts, the Vols exceeded expectations in 2021, winning seven regular season games and securing a bowl game invitation. This, after the transfer portal gutted the roster, the program was under NCAA investigation and another embarrassing coaching search.
Volunteers’ Expectations In Year Two Under Heupel
Last year’s success has ignited Volunteers’ expectations for this season. But Vols fans have seen this movie before. First, Butch Jones had two nine-win seasons until turning in the worst (to that point) season in Tennessee history in 2017. Then Jeremy Pruitt‘s team had an eight win season with a Gator Bowl victory in 2019. They followed that up with a 3-7 campaign in the COVID year. Even worse was the embarrassing revelations after Pruitt’s for-cause firing due to illegal and impermissible benefits coaches provided to players.
So no one can blame Vols fans for being slightly skittish heading into Josh Heupel‘s second season. The scar tissue on their football souls is far too thick by this point. Add on to this that Heupel’s win totals declined in each of his three seasons at UCF, and the pessimist is easily armed in Knoxville.
A New Hope?
There’s hope for progress. Heupel’s offense ran at a blistering pace last season, with only one off-season to prepare and two transfer quarterbacks running the show. Hendon Hoooker had a tremendous season, leading the nation in TD-to-Interception ratio (31-3) and finishing third nationally in Total Quarterback Rating (181.4). Both Hooker and backup Joe Milton return and have had the entire offseason to better learn Heupel’s offense. The Vols Quarterback situation is the strength of the team heading into the season. Cedric Tillman leads a receiving corps that will have plenty of opportunities to catch balls.
The development of freshman Dylan Sampson and the addition of Lyn-J Dixon from Clemson to the running back room will help a unit in need of depth.
But there’s more reason for hope on the offensive side. Four starters return on the offensive line, a unit the Vols haven’t excelled in since before the Dark Days of Derek Dooley. There’s not a lot of depth up front, so health will be key.
The Opponents Strike Back?
There’s plenty to be worried about, as well.
For one, the schedule doesn’t line up great for the Vols. Two of their toss-up games, Pittsburgh and LSU, are on the road. The Vols get their bye week in Week 5, after three home games in the first four contests. A resurgent Kentucky, coming off a 10-win season, has a bye week before coming to Knoxville. And the Vols end the season on the road for three of the last four, including at Georgia and at South Carolina. The schedule shapes up a little different this year, and in a situation where every little thing can make a difference, this could affect the Vols.
Opponents will also exploit a Tennessee defense that gave up 422 yards per game, finishing 90th nationally. The Vols pass rush was the one bright spot last season, and Byron Young and Tyler Baron will have to be even better this season. Most importantly, the Vols secondary, led by returners Trey Flowers and Jaylen McCollough, have to better against the passing attack.
Opposing defensive coordinators will now have an entire offseason and 13 game films to look at Heupel’s attack and game plan against it.
The Vols are also under NCAA Investigation. If the NCAA comes down with serious sanctions against the Vols program, including a bowl game ban, that could affect the team as well. One would hope that the NCAA would wait until after the season to deliver any serious sanctions, but everyone knows better than to put common sense and the NCAA in the same sentence.
The Return of the Vols?
In the end, the Volunteers’ expectations are — as always — high. Most Las Vegas prognosticators have tabbed the Vols at 7.5 wins. That would absolutely be a disappointment. Tennessee has more talent on its roster than at least six teams — Ball State, Akron, UT-Martin, Missouri, South Carolina, and Vanderbilt. Of the remaining teams not named Alabama or Georgia, the Vols get Florida, early in Billy Napier’s first season, and Kentucky at home. LSU is also in Brian Kelly’s first season and Pittsburgh lost Kenny Pickett and Jordan Addison.
It’s fair to expect Heupel’s second Vols team to win those six games and two between Florida, Kentucky, LSU, and Pittsburgh. And it’s absolutely reasonable to expect nine wins from this roster.
But the biggest difference that should spur hope with Vols fans is that the Vols finally have a stable program. An athletic director who can hire a component person as head coach. A coach that doesn’t embarrass the program. And players that are having fun and not fighting in the locker room.
If that truly is the case, then the wins will come. As will heightened expectations. And maybe, just maybe, some of that scar tissue will finally heal.