The SDS Crystal Ball: Predicting every game for Tennessee football in 2021
Editor’s note: Saturday Down South’s annual Crystal Ball prediction series continues today with Tennessee and Vanderbilt on Sunday.
Well, I can’t say I saw that coming.
At this time last year, the Vols were on the brink of signing Jeremy Pruitt to a contract extension on the heels of a 6-game winning streak to end the 2019 season. The Vols were ranked in the preseason Associated Press Top 25 for the first time since 2017, and all was well on Rocky Top.
Then, as they often have in the 21st century in Knoxville, the wheels fell off. A 2-0 start was washed away by a 6-game losing streak that ultimately cost Pruitt his job. If you think the Vols firing Pruitt with cause for alleged recruiting violations was independent of that losing streak, well, that’s on you.
And so begins a strange start to the Josh Heupel era.
The former UCF coach came to Tennessee to jumpstart an offense that’s been in the gutter the past 4 years. The Vols haven’t finished better than the No. 98 offense since 2016. Heupel, on the other hand, had nothing but top-8 offenses in his 3 years at UCF. Will his success translate in the SEC? Time will tell.
Heupel’s offense was No. 14 nationally as Mizzou’s offensive coordinator with Drew Lock in 2017, so there’s at least some track record. With better recruiting resources at Tennessee, the hope is that the former national championship-winning quarterback can replicate that as an SEC head coach. Is that possible?
Now seems like a good time to try and answer that question.
Does Heupel stick with 1 starting QB all year?
My guess is no. As much as he’d like to, I don’t think you see the same Tennessee quarterback start and finish the year.
Who will start the most games between Hendon Hooker, Joe Milton and Harrison Bailey? I don’t have the slightest clue. I really don’t. Milton is the only one he recruited. And Milton was a summer enrollee, which usually doesn’t translate into Year 1 success. Even Joe Burrow was only a halfway decent quarterback as a summer enrollee at LSU in 2018.
Of course, Burrow didn’t play in the system that Tennessee’s starter will. He didn’t have the luxury of spreading teams out and taking downfield shots. It’s no secret that’s the DNA of Heupel’s offense. It’s home-run plays when it works and 3-and-outs when it doesn’t.
Heupel’s ability to start the same quarterback every game could also be health-dependent. It’ll be a significant transition for this offensive line to go to more of a pass-heavy approach. That can be a challenge in itself (see 2020 Mississippi State). Does Tennessee’s starter need to be mobile? One would think, which is why it’s tough to imagine Bailey being the long-term fit, though some would point to Lock’s success and say it’s possible.
It’s been a minute since Heupel truly had a decision to make at quarterback. Dillon Gabriel took off with the starting job at UCF once McKenzie Milton suffered a devastating injury at the end of the 2018 regular season. Perhaps one will emerge from the back and never look back at Tennessee.
Heupel can only hope.
This has to be heaven for the Vols receivers
I mean, with all due respect to the previous regime, this offense seems much more fun for the wideouts. Like, they went from going to the library to going to the water park. For potential playmakers like Jimmy Calloway and Velus Jones Jr., Heupel’s presence had to be welcomed with open arms. Tennessee hasn’t had a top 60 passing offense since 2012.
Tennessee online sports betting officially launched on November 1, 2020, and many of the largest sportsbooks are live and operating in the volunteer state. Tennessee is only one of a handful of SEC football states with legalized sports betting.
Think about that. Calloway was in elementary school the last time the Vols had an above-average passing game.
No wonder all the buzz this offseason has been about “being a kid in a candy store.” Heupel’s offense is going to air it out and it’ll play with a lot more tempo than we’re used to seeing in Knoxville. At UCF last year, his offense averaged 86 plays per game. Compare that to Tennessee, which averaged offensive 66 plays per contest.
And it’s not like teams can give Tennessee the drop-8 coverage treatment, either. Heupel still ran the ball 42-plus times per contest in each of his 3 seasons in Orlando. It’s pass-first, sure, but I wouldn’t expect these receivers to be bracketed all game.
That’ll be different for someone like JaVonta Payton, who came to Tennessee from Mike Leach’s Air Raid at Mississippi State. Can he become the home-run threat the Vols have lacked in recent memory? Or maybe that’s Jaylin Hyatt, who literally was told by Heupel “this is the offense for you.”
It could be the offense for many of Tennessee’s outside weapons. What a change that’ll be.
Why I’m setting my defensive expectations low, low, low
Sorry, Vols fans. I’m expecting Tennessee’s defense to be at the bottom of the barrel in 2021. Why? It’s pretty easy. All that roster attrition didn’t help a defense that was middle-of-the-pack last year, and Heupel’s system doesn’t play complementary football.
(Apologies if you’ve seen me write/say that a dozen times this offseason. It’s true.)
What do I mean by that?
Ever since Heupel reinvented himself after getting fired at Oklahoma in 2014, look at where his teams ranked in scoring defense and time of possession (FBS rankings):
In case you were wondering, Barry Odom’s defense was No. 5 in FBS the year before Heupel arrived at Mizzou. The year after Heupel left Columbia for UCF, Mizzou’s defense improved by a full touchdown.
Also in case you were wondering, UCF players told athletic director Terry Mohajir that when Heupel left for Tennessee, they wanted his replacement to be an offensive-minded coach who played complementary football. Shots fired? A bit.
So combine that with the fact that the Vols lost Henry To’o To’o, Quavaris Crouch, Key Lawrence, JJ Peterson, Deandre Johnson and Kivon Bennett, yeah, and it’s fair to question just how good the defense will be with new coordinator Tim Banks. Expect a whole lot of high-scoring games in Knoxville in 2021.
Week 1: vs. Bowling Green (W)
After the Georgia State debacle of 2019, one should never assume Tennessee will cruise in an opener. There could be some kinks to work out. Having said that, Bowling Green is 12-41 in the last 5 seasons (0-5 last year) and it hasn’t beat a Power 5 team since 2015. That ain’t happening in Knoxville.
Week 2: vs. Pitt (W)
Pitt just lost 5 defensive players to the NFL Draft, which still isn’t quite as much production lost as the Vols, but in Knoxville, I’d expect to see Heupel try to test Pat Narduzzi’s defense. Pitt should still be solid defensively, especially at linebacker with SirVocea Dennis and Chase Pine. But you beat Pitt by putting pressure on that defense downfield. Heupel seems like the perfect guy to do that. And maybe there’s a little bit of extra motivation for Heupel after Narduzzi’s Pitt squad ended UCF’s winning streak and celebrated it like a Playoff berth.
DOWN GOES UCF.
The Pitt Panthers hand the Knights their first regular season loss since 2016. pic.twitter.com/ns95k1XW1F
— CBS Sports HQ (@CBSSportsHQ) September 21, 2019
Week 3: vs. Tennessee Tech (W)
So in the past 16 seasons, Tennessee started 3-0 once. And it was that 2016 season when there was the overtime win in the opener against Appalachian State and the 9-point win against Ohio. That’s bananas. In that same stretch, Vandy started 3-0 a total of 3 times. In other words, yes, I think the Vols have a reason to celebrate a blowout win against Tennessee Tech.
Week 4: at Florida (L)
And welcome back to reality. Florida’s passing game really gets going for the first time all year. Tight end Kemore Gamble does his best Kyle Pitts imitation and he hauls in multiple touchdowns against a porous Tennessee defense. Florida puts Tennessee in obvious passing situations all second half and forces multiple turnovers. Heupel’s debut in the rivalry ends just how 15 of the previous 16 matchups ended — a Florida win in which Tennessee doesn’t hit 30 points.
Week 5: at Mizzou (L)
It’s unfair to use 2020 as a barometer for this year’s matchup because of how different both teams are. Tennessee has an overhauled offense, and Mizzou has a different starting quarterback than it did in last year’s blowout loss in Knoxville. That proves to be the difference. Mizzou tailback Elijah Young has a monster day after a relatively slow start, and Connor Bazelak hooks up with Mookie Cooper twice for scores in a high-scoring affair. Hyatt and Jones both haul in long touchdowns, but Steve Wilks’ turnover-heavy approach yields a couple of takeaways to send Tennessee to 0-2 in SEC play.
Week 6: vs. South Carolina (W)
I went back and forth on this one. You could make a case that South Carolina’s offense should keep that Tennessee defense on the field too long and it’ll be worn down, especially if the Vols don’t convert some long(-ish) scoring drives. But I think Heupel will attack, attack and then attack some more. That Gamecocks’ secondary will have a rough showing on the road. Instead of getting out to an early lead and controlling the time of possession, South Carolina can’t match Tennessee’s chunk plays. Heupel wins this battle of first-year coaches.
Week 7: vs. Ole Miss (L)
Ah, yes. Lane Kiffin’s Tennessee reunion. Do you think that’ll be brought up? Something tells me it’ll get a mention or two that week. Something also tells me that Ole Miss’ offense against Tennessee’s defense will be one of the more lopsided matchups in the SEC this year. Lost in the shuffle of the Kiffin-Tennessee storyline will be Jeff Lebby going against his former boss, Heupel. Don’t be surprised when Ole Miss empties the bag to win in Knoxville.
Week 8: at Alabama (L)
I actually think we could see Tennessee score more points against Alabama than it has in 18 years. Heupel’s offense is built to light it up in a way that we haven’t seen in Knoxville in awhile. The problem? Like, besides the likely scenario that the Vols won’t stop a cold in 2021? Tennessee’s highest offensive output against Alabama since 2003 was … 21 points. This has a 52-24 feel to it.
Week 9: Bye
Week 10: at Kentucky (L)
It took a bit, but with Kentucky quarterback Will Levis settled in as a legitimate SEC starter, that shows against a porous Tennessee defense in a major way. In a shocking turn of events given their recent matchups, both squads show that they can throw the ball. Like, not into the arms of the opposing team. Tre’Von Morgan has his long-overdue breakout game against Tennessee’s secondary, and Kentucky turns to Chris Rodriguez and Kavosiey Smoke late to propel a much-needed home win for the first time since mid-September. The Vols’ losing streak hits 3.
Week 11: vs. Georgia (L)
What a bizarre thought that when this game was played last year, No. 14 Tennessee went into halftime with a lead against Georgia. My how things have changed. Tennessee will attack Georgia differently, as well. We could see the Vols get more chunk plays than they have in the past against Kirby Smart’s defense, but will they be able to stop anything on defense? I wouldn’t bank on it. Instead of letting JT Daniels take over, Todd Monken turns to the ground game to do the heavy lifting. Georgia hits 300 rushing yards and wins its 5th consecutive game against the Vols. Tennessee’s rivalry game woes continue.
Week 12: vs. South Alabama (W)
Don’t sleep on South Alabama’s defensive potential with Tom Allen disciple Kane Wommack. As for the offensive potential? Well, let’s just say I’m not optimistic about the No. 113 group turning that around in Year 1. At least not enough to keep pace with the Vols, even if the ageless Jake Bentley (!) has some success as South Alabama’s starter. Jabari Small and Payton both go off in Tennessee’s first win in a month and a half.
Week 13: vs. Vanderbilt (W)
For the second consecutive week, the Tennessee defense shows up ready to roll. Alontae Taylor and Jeremy Banks both get takeaways against a Vandy offense that isn’t really built to play from behind. This still ends up being a relatively high-scoring affair, but Vandy’s offense comes too late. Instead of this being reminiscent of the 2018 game wherein Tennessee loses bowl eligibility against the Commodores, this time, the Vols get win No. 6.
2021 projection: 6-6 (2-6), 5th in SEC East
Well, I’ll say this. If you’re a glass-half-full person, you’re hopeful that 6 wins and getting to a bowl game is Heupel’s floor. You’ll appreciate that a Year 1 coach gets an extra few weeks of practices and the possibility of reaching 7 wins is on the table for a team that should return a ton of production in 2022.
If you’re a glass-half-empty person, you’re focused on that 2-6 mark against SEC competition that features 3 blowout losses to rivals. You’ll wonder when the defensive answers will come and if Heupel’s brand of football has the upside to succeed long-term in the SEC.
I’m somewhere in the middle on that. I don’t think it’s realistic to suddenly compete with Florida, Georgia and Alabama. I also think there’s a lot to look forward to with the passing game, which again, should rank in the top 60 for the first time since 2012. If Heupel’s brand of football keeps Tennessee interesting instead of making it a laughing stock like it was last year, that’s what I’m hanging my hat on if I’m a Vols fan.
Besides, there’s nothing wrong with going to Shreveport in late-December.