First and 10: Did Tennessee, finally, at long last, get a coaching search right?
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
Maybe it’s best if we start with a simple, hard to ignore premise: It can’t get any worse than what has already transpired.
When you’ve botched coaching hire after coaching hire and brought a once proud Tennessee program to its knees, how much damage can really be done with uncomfortable, groundbreaking change?
“Our fans are starving for a winner,” Josh Heupel says.
They may just have stumbled into one.
Heupel wasn’t the coach Tennessee fans dreamed about after Jeremy Pruitt was finally, mercifully, fired after 3 brutal seasons.
Heupel wasn’t a major steal from a major conference. He wasn’t Matt Campbell or Mario Cristobal or P.J. Fleck.
He wasn’t an assistant under Saban or Swinney, and wasn’t Lane Kiffin – who, frankly, has a better job right now.
He was a guy who came in tow with an out of the box athletic director hire (Danny White), who arrived in town and immediately gave Tennessee fans some stone cold truth: “Don’t put it on social media.”
Translation: Stop publicly whining. Stop blaming everyone else.
Stop being the person who always points the finger, instead of looking in the mirror and pointing at the only person who can change it.
Want to know why Tennessee football — once at the top of the college football world in the late 1990s and loud and proud as it had ever been – is no longer relevant? Because of bad hires, both coaching and administrating.
Not because of some conspiracy in the SEC, or because Florida and Alabama cheat, or because of any other lunatic fringe idea floating around on Big Orange social media.
Danny White arrived in town with a strong track record and zero connection to Tennessee, and went out and hired a head coach with a track record of scoring points – and zero connection to Tennessee.
See the common denominator?
A clean, fresh start with an athletic director whose professional birth occurred in the CFP era, and a coach who won a national title as a player at Oklahoma, and whose head coaching experience was birthed in the CFP era.
Not an old school AD with connections to the university, or a former football coach who hired a glorified P.E. coach who now has the Vols staring down the NCAA barrel.
A vibrant and different athletic director who once believed in something so strongly, he took on the big boys of college football the only way he could: in the court of public opinion.
That’s right, that’s a 2017 National Championship banner striped across UCF’s stadium in Orlando. Why? UCF was unbeaten, and didn’t get an invite to the 2017 CFP – where the national championship game included two teams (Georgia and Alabama) with 1 loss.
Auburn was the team that gave both Alabama and Georgia their respective losses, and UCF beat Auburn in the Sugar Bowl. So yeah, White was taking a stand.
In fact, he made such a statement – refusing to back down no matter the blowback from (guess where?) social media – that the NCAA finally recognized UCF’s 2017 national title.
There in the official NCAA record book are the national champions for 2017: Alabama and UCF.
So now, as a passionate and persistent Vols fan, you’re going to doubt White when he hired Heupel to take over a program that has lost 29 of its last 30 games to rivals Alabama (14 straight) and Florida (15 of 16) because he didn’t hire Kiffin?
Look, a legitimate argument can be made that Tennessee has not only screwed the pooch on the last 4 coaching hires (Lane Kiffin, Derek Dooley, Butch Jones, Jeremy Pruitt), but that even legendary coach Phil Fulmer’s ascension to the big chair came with considerable blowback (see: the coup against Johnny Majors).
Tennessee doesn’t do football coaching hires well. Hasn’t for decades.
One AD (Doug Dickey) conspired with an assistant coach (Fulmer) to get the head coach (Majors) fired and Fulmer hired, and another AD (Mike Hamilton) blindly hired Kiffin after significant warnings from NFL personnel. Hamilton then hired Dooley because of his connection to Saban – despite a huge red flag from Dooley’s struggles at Louisiana Tech.
The next AD, Dave Hart, made the best hire not named Fulmer when he landed Butch Jones, who despite his quirky ways, still had back-to-back 9-win seasons before it all fell apart. Fulmer then pulled yet another coup to oust AD John Currie and hired longtime SEC assistant Jeremy Pruitt because of his connection to Saban.
And Mr. and Mrs. Big Orange are a little iffy on Danny White?
If we don’t learn from history, we’re doomed to repeat it. Or in Tennessee’s case, doomed to nearly two lost decades.
White, unlike previous athletic directors, based his hiring decision on one thing: How do you win games today in college football?
By throwing the ball.
Enter, Josh Heupel.
2. Points are the premium
That was Alabama and Florida combining for nearly 100 points in last year’s SEC Championship Game.
That was LSU in 2019, with maybe the greatest collection of offensive talent in college football history, averaging 48.4 points per game – and scoring 142 points in the final 3 games of the season (SEC Championship Game, CFP semifinal, CFP Championship Game).
You win in the best conference in college football by scoring points. You win with elite quarterback play.
In 3 seasons at UCF, Heupel’s teams averaged 43.2, 43.4 and 42.2 points per game. His quarterbacks had a combined TD/INT ration of 97/19.
In the last 3 years, Tennessee has averaged 22.8, 24.2 and 21.5 points per game, and its quarterbacks have a combined TD/INT ratio of 48/27.
Some quick math: UCF quarterbacks threw more than double the touchdown passes, and less interceptions.
But it’s the SEC, you say. Yep, it’s is.
It’s also the efficiency of a passing game built for today’s game – not built with the original Alabama blueprint under Saban that included a stout defense, strong running game and caretaker quarterbacks.
Today’s game revolves around quarterbacks who can define a game. Heupel not only won big at UCF with a holdover from the previous staff (McKenzie Milton), he also did it with a player he recruited, developed and played as a true freshman (Dillon Gabriel).
So if you’re wondering if Heupel can make it happen at quarterback in the SEC with Harrison Bailey, or Michigan transfer Joe Milton, or Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker — or any other quarterback on the roster — look at his track record.
Before leaving for UCF, Heupel spent 2016-2017 at Missouri, where he was offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Drew Lock threw 67 TDs in those 2 seasons, including a then-SEC record 44 in 2017.
“We’re going to be very aggressive on offense,” Heupel said.
That alone should be enough to gravitate toward what could be with Heupel.
3. It’s all about the players
There are inherent issues Heupel will deal with from Day 1, most notably the backdrop of a looming NCAA investigation that could strafe the program for a couple of years.
More pressing for long-term goals: Tennessee hasn’t recruited as well as SEC rivals Alabama and Florida, or as well as SEC heavyweights Georgia, LSU and Texas A&M.
Players win games, and right now, Tennessee’s roster – especially after the defections from the Pruitt firing – isn’t at an SEC level.
“(Recruiting) starts with the brand of football that you play,” Heupel said. “You’ve got to play an exciting brand of football. It can happen quickly.”
Tennessee reached the top of the college football mountain in the late 1990s because Fulmer was crushing it on the recruiting trail. He was plucking elite players from various states in the Southeast and beating the SEC schools in those states.
But it’s a lot easier to beat Mike Dubose, Jim Donnan and Gerry DiNardo in the 1990s, than it is Nick Saban, Kirby Smart and Ed Orgeron. That “exciting brand” will lure some recruits, but only wins will allow Heupel to build for the long haul.
I’ve made this argument time and again: Tennessee will never be elite again because it can’t recruit like Fulmer once did. Two things can change that, and one is a dynamic and charismatic coach whose unique style of play attracts recruits.
The other is the retirement of Saban and Smart, or something that evens out the playing field on the recruiting trail. That something might be new NIL legislation, where a university’s brand will be critical in recruiting pitches.
Either way, it’s a heavy lift for Heupel.
4. Friends and rivals – not enemies
Alabama vs. Clemson. Bryce Young vs. D.J. Uiagalelei.
College football’s greatest rivalry of the CFP era hits another level this season with the quarterbacks for both teams renew a rivalry that began years ago in the California Trinity League.
They’re good friends, sure, but they’ve also already played some significant games against each other. In 2018, Young, Alabama’s redshirt freshman quarterback, led Mater Dei to a state championship, beating Uiagalelei and St. John Bosco in a section championship game.
A year later, Bosco and Uiagalelei, Clemson’s sophomore quarterback, beat Mater Dei and Young in the same section game before winning a state title. Alabama and Clemson are favorites again to win the 2021 national title, based on what is expected to be elite play from Young and Uiagalelei.
They’ve been friends since 8th grade, and have worked out together since. Both were counselors last week at Steve Clarkson’s QB Retreat in Los Angeles.
“It doesn’t get much better than those two guys,” Clarkson said. “I’d love to watch them compete again with another championship on the line. Two great players who raise the level of play of others around them.”
5. The Weekly Five
The 5 biggest regular-season conference games in the SEC:
Georgia vs. Florida, Oct. 30: The Georgia staff has been talking about this game all
offseason. Can the defense adjust to Florida coach Dan Mullen’s offense?
Alabama at Texas A&M, Oct. 9: Alabama’s game with Ole Miss on Oct. 2 could expose some of the Tide’s defensive flaws for Texas A&M.
Alabama at Florida, Sept. 18: First true road game for Young. First true test for revamped Florida defense.
Texas A&M at Ole Miss, Nov. 13: COVID eliminated this game in 2020 (twice!), and this could be Kiffin’s signature SEC win.
Florida at LSU, Oct. 16: LSU has games at Alabama and vs. Texas A&M later in the season, but this game sets those up. Without a win, forget about making a statement in November.
6. Your tape is your résumé
An NFL scout breaks down a draft-eligible SEC player. This week: CB Roger McCreary, Auburn.
“You’re going to see teams in our league start to value corners more than we already do. The passing game, and the rules that favor the passing game, is changing everything. You’re going to have specialty guys. Inside, outside, bump, zone. I like the way (McCreary) plays zone. Very disciplined, great eyes, quick recognition. He’s long and he can run. He’s not a burner, but I love his football speed and IQ. He’ll improve in press (coverage). I love those guys that weren’t the big recruits, and they play with attitude because they’re showing why they should’ve been. That’s (McCreary).”
7. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll: the best play-callers.
1. Lane Kiffin, Ole Miss: Nothing quite like the sight of Kiffin’s arms raised signaling touchdown once the ball is snapped.
2. Dan Mullen, Florida: The wheel route vs. Georgia, the perimeter game in his first trip back to Mississippi State, the RPO positioning with TE Kyle Pitts. All brilliant moves.
3. Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M: His play-calling prowess reemerged in 2020 because Kellen Mond played the best of his career.
4. Todd Monken, Georgia: He didn’t have much to work with until QB JT Daniels got healthy. But Monken also wasn’t the same aggressive play-caller he was at Oklahoma State. That has to change in 2021.
5. Bill O’Brien, Alabama: Was much more aggressive at Penn State than the NFL, but he had to be with the personnel he had. Let’s see how creative he gets with elite players everywhere.
6. Eliah Drinkwitz, Missouri: Get ready for a significantly improved Mizzou offense. QB Connor Bazelak in Year 2 means more options for Drinkwitz.
7. Mike Leach, Mississippi State: Ten or so plays, more than a hundred formations. It doesn’t change, and it’s always successful.
8. Josh Heupel, Tennessee: This will be Heupel’s biggest early impact at UT: Moving the offense into the 21st century.
9. Liam Coen, Kentucky: First-year OC, never coached major college ball, young savant. His peers in the coaching fraternity rave about him and his ability to see things others don’t.
10. Kendal Briles, Arkansas: With KJ Jefferson emerging at QB, Briles is closer to being able to pull off a Baylor-type offense at Arkansas – an offense that was all the rage in the Big 12 not long ago.
11. Mike Bobo, Auburn; This one is a little iffy. Because if it were head coach Bryan Harsin – who I still believe will make critical calls (and maybe more than that like he did at Boise State) – it would be a higher grade.
12. Jake Peetz, LSU: Joe Brady recommended him to Ed Orgeron. Can he deliver unique play-calling like Brady?
13. David Raih, Vanderbilt: After time in both NFL and CFB, he gets his shot at coordinating an offense and calling plays.
14. Marcus Satterfield, South Carolina: During the lowest of lows in the Temple rebuild for Matt Rhule, Satterfield – his OC/QB coach – called plays for the most prolific offense at the school since 1979.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: Shane Beamer was a really strange hire to me. I’ve tried to be positive, but this looks like we’re further away than ever from where we were with Spurrier.
Rick: The Spurrier years weren’t something cobbled together and easily duplicated. In fact, it’s the high-water mark for the program. Beamer will recruit well to South Carolina; maybe even better than Spurrier and Will Muschamp. The key is landing and developing a difference-maker at quarterback.
Spurrier had one in Connor Shaw, and couldn’t get another. Muschamp thought he had one in Jake Bentley, but it never materialized. Until Beamer lands a quarterback who can change what defenses do, it’s an uphill battle in a conference that runs through coaches quicker than any other.
44. Much has been made of QB Myles Brennan’s fast start last season at LSU. He was putting together a huge season before a core injury ended it after 3 games. His 3-game numbers projected to a 12-game regular season are startling: 4,448 yards and 44 TDs. Joe Burrow’s numbers after 12 games in the 2019 championship season: 4,366 yards, 44 TDs. As well as Max Johnson eventually played in 2020, it’s hard to imagine Brennan not winning the starting job.
10. Quote to note
Tennessee coach Josh Heupel: “Everywhere we’ve been, we’ve had guys that are all-conference players, setting records, up for the Heisman (Trophy). We’ve been able to change to fit our personnel every single year. We will find a way to go put a great offensive product out there, and the triggerman is going to be a big part of that.”