It’s easier said than done to actually build that ideal Year 2. More times than not, there are actual expectations associated with that. Coaches can’t really default to having an entire roster full of somebody else’s players, and it’s no longer about reserving judgment like it often is in Year 1.

Lane Kiffin and Sam Pittman took those Year 2 expectations and knocked them out of the park. Both took over non-bowl teams and delivered ideal Year 2 jumps. Kiffin led Ole Miss to its best regular-season win total in program history, and Pittman led Arkansas to its first AP Top 25 finish in a decade.

If we want to expand that to the Power 5 ranks, Dave Aranda absolutely belongs in that same conversation. The former LSU defensive coordinator led Baylor to top-5 finish in his 2nd season.

At this time last year, perhaps nobody would’ve said that was realistic. Aranda was coming off a 2-7 season in Year 1, and his roster ranked No. 41 in the 247sports talent composite. That’s why his team was picked to finish 8th in the Big 12.

The same was true of Mel Tucker. The Michigan State coach took over a team that was in shambles, and with a massive overhaul via the transfer portal in Year 2, he led the Spartans to their best season since 2015, when they reached the Playoff.

That brings us to Shane Beamer and Josh Heupel.

Yes, they can do what Kiffin and Pittman did. No, that’s not a given even though both also exceeded extremely low Year 1 expectations.

What would that look like?

Beamer and Heupel have the ability to do things that we haven’t seen from either program in the Playoff era. The vibes are sky high with starting arguably 2 of the top 10 quarterbacks in the country in Spencer Rattler and Hendon Hooker. That’s a big part of the offseason conversation for a pair of programs that looked significantly better in the latter half of the regular season.

Can both thrive at the same time in the same division? Kiffin and Pittman did, and not to take anything away from them, but it probably helped that LSU plummeted while Texas A&M never figured things out with a backup quarterback. Both teams had sky-high vibes entering the offseason and somehow managed to exceed expectations. Granted, that didn’t include a win against a team like Alabama or Georgia (Ole Miss only faced Alabama).

That’s where it feels like the conversation will be centered around for Tennessee. We should probably include Florida in that conversation because last I checked, when you have 1 win against a team since the George Bush administration, that’s still a major hurdle to overcome.

The year that happened was, of course, 2016. Apex mountain for Butch Jones was ending the Florida skid at 11 and also taking down Georgia with “The Dobbsnail Boot.”

And since then, Georgia has 5 consecutive wins by at least 3 scores against Tennessee. It’s probably not realistic to assume that Heupel is about to go into Athens and beat the defending national champs. It might not even be realistic to assume that the Vols are going to beat Nick Saban at Alabama for the first time, especially considering the Tide might start off as the unanimous No. 1 team in America.

So then what are we talking about for Tennessee? And what would be considered a Kiffin/Pittman-like Year 2 jump?

I’d say it’d be checking all of these boxes:

  • 9-3 regular season
  • New Year’s 6 bowl berth
  • Avoid getting swept by Alabama, Georgia and Florida (that’s actually saying a lot for a program that’s 3-33 vs. those 3 teams since 2010 and is rocking a streak of 16 consecutive losses to that group)
  • Another top-10 offense
  • Hooker finishes as an All-SEC quarterback

For a team that ranks No. 2 in the SEC in percentage of returning production, all of those things seem realistic after what we saw in Year 1, especially as Florida takes the long-term approach with Billy Napier. It’s fitting that Tennessee’s last All-SEC quarterback was Josh Dobbs during that 2016 season, which saw the Vols go 8-4 in the regular season. The 2022 squad could be in position to best that and have the program’s best season since 2007.

Why? The Vols were far from a disaster on defense like many projected (myself included) after losing dozens of players to the transfer portal and watching Heupel whiff on multiple defensive coordinator hires. The bowl game was rough, and it was by no means a vintage Tennessee defense, but that group still somehow finished No. 6 in the SEC in yards per play allowed. Defensive coordinator Tim Banks deserves a ton of credit for that.

In this era, you don’t need to have a top-20 defense to reach new heights. Ask Kiffin’s 2021 squad about that. It took a key step with some nice transfer portal additions and it actually had an average defense. The Vols’ realistic 2022 goal on that side of the ball — or perhaps more so the expectation — should be flirting with mediocrity.

Of course, nobody at Tennessee or South Carolina will be trademarking the phrase “let’s flirt with mediocrity!”

That’s not the Beamer way. He’s not the SEC’s version PJ Fleck with his mantras, but his energy and buy-in within that locker room are similar to the Minnesota coach. That’s how you take a 2-win program that was No. 125 in FBS in percentage of returning production and lead it to 7 wins in Year 1.

In 2022, South Carolina is No. 36 nationally and No. 3 in the SEC (behind Tennessee and Mississippi State) in percentage of returning production. In fact, nobody in the SEC returns a higher percentage of production on offense than the Gamecocks.

That’s huge because as great as the finish was (So. Much. Mayo.), let’s not forget that the majority of the season was a mess offensively. In case you forgot, South Carolina was No. 104 nationally in scoring, which is probably what you’d expect from a team who started a grad assistant (not a grad transfer) at quarterback multiple times. That’s not including the time he (Zeb Noland) had to bail the Gamecocks’ lifeless offense out to rally back late at home against Vandy.

Poor offensive line play contributed to South Carolina only rushing for 3.78 yards per carry with 9 scores on the ground all year (only 3 Power 5 teams had fewer than that). With a backfield attack that included a preseason All-SEC back (Kevin Harris), an experienced veteran (ZaQuandre White) and a promising redshirt freshman (MarShawn Lloyd), that was troubling.

But what’ll probably carry more weight was the fact that those last 3 wins were all of the upset variety, and all of them saw the ground game get serious momentum.

That’s the key word right there. “Momentum.” How much of it does South Carolina have now with the finish and the Rattler addition? Well, let’s be realistic here. The Gamecocks have to improve on the offensive line and they have some key pieces to replace on defense, including JJ Enagbare and Jaylan Foster.

This is what it would take to reach a Kiffin/Pittman-like Year 2 jump:

  • 9 wins (win No. 9 can happen in bowl game)
  • Play a bowl game in Florida
  • Rattler at least has a legitimate All-SEC argument at season’s end (SC has never had an All-SEC QB … ever)
  • Finish in top 7 of SEC in scoring offense (hasn’t happened since 2014)
  • Avoid the 0-3 start to SEC play

That last part is key, and it’s true for both Beamer and Heupel. Nothing can kill offseason momentum like the quick realization that a division title is off the table by mid-October. Arkansas and Ole Miss might not have had regular seasons that ended in Atlanta, but think about what both programs did early in the season. Arkansas walloped Texas and then opened SEC play by beating A&M for the first time in a decade while Ole Miss dismantled Louisville and then went 3-1 to start off SEC play.

There’s a decent chance that South Carolina and Tennessee will both be underdogs in their first 3 SEC games of 2022. The Gamecocks start at Arkansas, vs. Georgia and at Kentucky. All of them could very likely start in the Top 25. Tennessee will open SEC play vs. Florida, at LSU and vs. Alabama.

If Beamer and Heupel are going to be more than the offseason good vibes teams, that’s where we’ll really see how ready they are.

Continue to change that perceived ceiling. Start getting those 3:30 CBS games in November. Win a road game in one of the SEC’s toughest venues. Go from being “frisky” to being a legitimate Top 25 finisher.

Easy enough, right?

“There’s great energy and excitement about the program right now,” Beamer told The State. “That’s great, but seven (wins) is not the end goal. Making sure our players understand all the work that went into seven wins last season, it’s going to take all that and even more to get to that next level.”

Ask Kiffin and Pittman about that next level. It’s a different beast.

But it’s a beast that can be conquered.