First and 10: Tennessee has been 'back' before. But this time, it's different
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
We’ve been here before, you know. Shouting paradigm change from the rooftops, and soaking in the glory of vanquishing the tormentor.
Now that Tennessee has proven it can once again beat Florida, what’s ahead for a program that 2 years ago was given up for dead?
“This was the next one on our journey here,” Vols coach Josh Heupel said. “The past is the past for the coaches and players in our program.”
That, more than anything, has been the central focus of Heupel’s rebuild at the once proud program since he stepped on campus in Knoxville 2 years ago. He can’t control what happened in the past, he can only dictate what happens in the future.
Yet it’s hard to look back 6 years ago and not see the parallels. There was Butch Jones, proclaiming for all to hear that Tennessee was not the same Tennessee anymore after a big win over the Gators in front of a raucous crowd at Neyland Stadium.
The Vols had turned the corner in 2015 with a 9-4 record. They lost to Oklahoma in overtime. Lost to Florida by 1 and Alabama by 5, both on the road. They won 6 straight to finish the season, and began 2016 with huge expectations.
They had back-to-back-to-back top-15 recruiting classes (2014-16) in the 247Sports composite. They were built for the long haul.
After the Florida win 4 weeks into the 2016 season, after Jones stood on a ladder and orchestrated the Pride of the Southland Band, Tennessee beat Georgia and had won 12 of its last 13.
And then it completely fell apart.
The Vols finished the 2016 season losing 4 of 8 games, but the most galling loss — the clear indicator that something was seriously wrong — was a 45-34 upset at the hands of Vanderbilt at the end of the regular season.
Tennessee had everything to gain with a win, a Sugar Bowl invite waiting with a win over a team the Vols had owned for most of the previous 3 decades. The talent disparity between the teams was significant — and so was the chemistry.
The talented Tennessee locker room, after 3 straight losses to Texas A&M, Alabama and South Carolina — as heavy favorites in 2 of the 3 — had already started tuning out the hard-charging Jones.
A year later, after the season began with wins over Georgia Tech and Indiana State — and with the vision of a Tennessee staffer stalking the sideline in the season-opener with the checkerboard Turnover Trashcan over his head (a fitting omen) — the Vols lost 8 of 10 and Jones was fired before the end of the season.
From a program-defining moment with the win over Florida in 2016, to losing a school-record 8 games and failing to win an SEC game for the first time since 1933. All in 14 months.
Fast forward to this season, and Tennessee is 9-4 in its last 13 games under Heupel. The dual-threat quarterback (Hendon Hooker) is hot (just like Josh Dobbs in 2016), they have dangerous skill players on offense and the defense makes enough big plays to not break in the moment.
If you think you’ve seen this movie before, I’m here to say you’re wrong. This Vols program, with Heupel driving the train, isn’t going anywhere.
2. The rebuild
I was talking with Heupel earlier this summer, and he was trying to explain the depth of the gutted program he inherited from the glorified P. E. coach, Jeremy Pruitt.
At one point during spring practice of 2021, the Vols had a walk-on long snapper competing at a linebacker spot because depth was so thin.
Before Heupel’s first team hit the field, more than 30 players left for the transfer portal. And these weren’t end-of-the-roster players, these were guys who had won games, and could win games, and would/will play in the NFL.
LB Henry To’o To’o, TBs Tyson Chandler and Eric Gray, OTs Jahmir Johnson and Wanya Morris, LB Quavaris Crouch, DE DeAndre Johnson and DB Key Lawrence were all projected starters, all guys who could have made a significant difference in Year 1.
The roster Heupel left at UCF was far better than the roster he inherited at Tennessee. How this program has won 11 of 17 games under Heupel — and 3 of their past 4 vs. ranked teams — is the most overlooked story in the SEC over the past 2 seasons.
Heupel patched holes through the transfer portal and freshman recruits, and hit the portal lottery with Hooker, who signed with Tennessee not knowing who the coach would be (Pruitt had just been fired). Heupel convinced Hooker to stay, and by Week 2 of last season, Hooker was the answer at the most important position on the field.
That, more than anything, will be the difference between Heupel and Jones: recruiting (high school and portal) and developing the quarterback position. And Heupel has the advantage because of his player-friendly Blur Ball offense, and because — as a former All-American and national championship-winning quarterback at blue-blood Oklahoma — the sales pitch is easier and the development quicker.
Jones’ quarterback recruits were a hodgepodge of wishing and hoping: Riley Ferguson, Quinten Dormady, Sheriron Jones, Jauan Jennings (yep, the WR was a QB recruit) and Jarrett Guarantano. Jones did hit with Dobbs, but once the 2016 season ended — once Dobbs had led back-to-back 9-win seasons, the production dramatically slipped and so did the program.
Heupel’s first QB recruit in 2021, 4-star Kaidon Salter, was dismissed from school after off-field problems. His second, 4-star Tayven Jackson in 2022, is a third-string backup.
His third may change everything.
3. Built for the long haul, The Epilogue
If there’s any doubt about Heupel’s ability to develop quarterbacks, look at Hooker over the past 16 games — and remember that his uneven career at Virginia Tech included stints on the bench.
Hooker leads the SEC in total offense (342 ypg.) and passer rating (183.73), has thrown a school-record 213 consecutive passes without an interception and has 16 consecutive games with a TD pass.
In his 15 games as the starter, he has 45 total TDs and just 2 INTs — and he’s getting better every week.
“He’s playing at an unbelievable and elite level,” Heupel said.
Now imagine what Heupel’s third quarterback recruit — 5-star, 2023 prospect Nico Iamaleava — could do moving forward, and it’s not difficult to envision why the Vols are built for the long haul.
Beyond the alleged $8 million NIL deal, Iamaleava is the first clear indicator that what Heupel and his staff are doing is working. They’re reaching elite players, including 3 other top-100 recruits in the 2023 class.
That’s how programs are built, and how they sustain. Stack top 10-15 classes on top of each other (the 2023 class is No. 9 in the 247Sports composite), get the right quarterback and build winning seasons.
I was the guy who 2 years ago proclaimed Tennessee would never be elite again because the recruiting map had changed and because multiple disastrous coaching hires had left the program far from the glory days.
But NIL and the transfer portal have changed everything. So has the sport’s move to the vertical passing game.
Now more than ever, the quarterback — and the coach who can recruit elite quarterbacks or sign them from the transfer portal and develop them — means everything.
Suddenly, Tennessee has the formula.
The Vols aren’t going anywhere.
4. The inevitable
The worst possible thing happened at Auburn last weekend. Missouri gifted Auburn a win.
And now the inevitable will last another week (or more).
This is an average Auburn team. Worse, it’s an average team without a legitimate Power 5 quarterback.
Even worse, it’s an average team with this upcoming 6-game stretch: LSU, at Georgia, at Ole Miss, Arkansas, at Mississippi State, Texas A&M.
Who sees a win in that gauntlet? Who sees Tigers coach Bryan Harsin — who most certainly would’ve been fired after the atrocious L against Missouri that somehow became a W — lasting through the end of October?
When Auburn goes bad, it goes bad like few programs in college football. Maybe those fat cat boosters who facilitated this undoing at the end of last season will at some point recognize why the football teams at Auburn tank so spectacularly when the end is near.
Or maybe they won’t, and they’ll hire Urban Meyer and start all over.
5. The Weekly 5
Five picks against the spread, brought to you by our friends at FanDuel:
- Alabama at Arkansas (+16.5)
- Kentucky (+4.5) at Ole Miss
- Texas A&M (+1) at Mississippi State
- LSU (-7.5) at Auburn
- Georgia (-26.5) at Missouri
Last week: 4-1.
6. Your tape is your résumé
An NFL scout breaks down an NFL draft-eligible SEC player. This week: Texas A&M RB Devon Achane.
“He’s not a running back in our league, at least not a true running back. But a guy like that, with that explosion, and that unique speed, you’ll find a place for him. You can use him in any number of areas, can line up him and try to create mismatches. His straight-line speed is impressive, and he gets there quickly in the first 10 yards. He’s got that shake to him, makes people miss and knows how to get small and not absorb those big hits. Could he develop into an elite receiver? That’s going to be a question a lot of us ask.”
7. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll, and one big thing: The uncovered flaw after 1 month.
1. Georgia: Apparently, MAC schools.
2. Alabama: Is All-American edge Will Anderson really pressing? Yep (fortunately, there’s emerging edge Dallas Turner).
3. Texas A&M: The Aggies struggle mightily in pass protection.
4. Kentucky: A dangerous trend: Wildcats play up to competition — and down to competition.
5. Arkansas: The transfer portal doesn’t always cure all ills. The rebuilt secondary is porous, and the Hogs are No. 13 in the SEC in passing yards allowed per game (302.3).
6. Tennessee: Vols are giving up SEC-worst 309.3 passing yards per game, and still must play QBs Bryce Young, Stetson Bennett III, Will Levis and Jayden Daniels.
7. Ole Miss: Rebels have struggled to close-out Group of 5 teams Troy and Tulsa. The SEC West Division heavy-hitters are looming.
8. LSU: Tigers are No. 13 in the SEC in sacks allowed (13 in 4 games), with 2 games against FCS Southern and New Mexico.
9. Mississippi State: It’s not just the run game, it’s the lack of use (only 94 carries) despite the improvement (2.37 ypc. in 2020, 3.04 in 2022, and 3.55 this season).
10. Florida: A lack of depth behind the starting 22 is alarming, but more specifically, in the defensive front 7.
11. South Carolina: Gamecocks can’t protect, and it’s significantly impacting the play of QB Spencer Rattler (2 TDs, 5 INTs).
12. Missouri: Of all the problems, the worst might be 70 yards a game in penalties — some of them truly stupefying.
13. Auburn: The loss of QB Zach Calzada, now out of for the season with shoulder surgery, has left Auburn with severe limitations at the most important position on the field.
14. Vanderbilt: The running game still can’t move the ball consistently against Power 5 teams: 60 carries for 127 yards.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: I feel like that’s our ceiling against Tennessee. I don’t know that we can play any better, and we lost. What happens now with the Gators? — Morgan Unger, Birmingham.
Everyone has to get better, coaches and players. But coach Billy Napier made some strange moves against the Vols, 3 in particular that were critical to the final score.
While his aggressive coaching on both sides of the ball are admirable, he has to learn to pick and choose his spots. The 2-point conversion attempt late in the 4th quarter was a bad “analytics” decision. Always take the points when chasing.
The thought process is if you get the 2-point conversion while down 11, you put yourself in position to win the game with a touchdown and field goal. This, of course, is utterly comical — because you first have to score a touchdown, then recover an onside kick, then drive to get in position for a field goal (even though that’s exactly what happened, despite the odds).
Napier cost his team in the 4th quarter with a personal foul call while arguing with officials for stopping the game for a replay call. Tennessee went from 3rd-and-goal at the 1, to 1st-and-goal at the half-yard line — and scored on the next play.
Napier also called a timeout late in the 1st half with Florida leading 14-10, and with Tennessee facing a 3rd-and-10 from its 12 with 1:15 to play — just in case his defense got a stop and gave his offense one more series.
Tennessee converted, then completed a 99-yard drive with a touchdown with 7 seconds remaining in the half. Had Napier not called timeout, the clock runs another 35-40 seconds, and the Vols don’t have enough time for the scoring drive.
“We need to coach a little bit better, in particular, myself,” Napier said. “I think I can do better for our team, for our players.
3.33. Forget about any other defensive number for Alabama. None is more important than 3.33 yards per play. That’s an incredibly good number, highlighting the fact that the Tide has given up 805 total yards in 4 games.
On paper, the Tide defense is averaging a 3-and-out every 3 plays. Does that happen? Of course not. But that number is the foundation of the nation’s No. 1 defense.
10. Quote to note
LSU coach Brian Kelly explaining the growth of QB Jayden Daniels: “We were really firm on fast feet, and then slowing down the thought process. We felt like when his feet are slow, it puts his mind moving too fast because he feels like the opposite has occurred.”