At long last, football is fun again in Knoxville
I’m not breaking any news here when I tell you that the past few years have been rough ones for Tennessee fans.
Three seasons of Jeremy Pruitt produced a 16-19 record, allegations of NCAA rule violations, a mass exodus of key players to the transfer portal, Pruitt’s exit and the “retirement” of athletic director Phillip Fulmer.
New UT AD Danny White didn’t have a whole lot of options when it came to finding a new football coach. Considering the circumstances mentioned above, bringing in his old coach from Central Florida was probably the best that he could do at the time.
Yes. Expectations were extremely low for the Vols and their new coach, Josh Heupel. I’ve covered UT football for over 20 years and I cannot recall a time when there was less buzz leading into a season than this one.
But an interesting thing happened on the way to the doldrums of another lost campaign.
Football got fun again in Knoxville.
After an up and down opening 4 weeks, Heupel’s Vols have run roughshod over 2 division rivals, outscoring Missouri and South Carolina by a combined score of 107-44. They aren’t only winning, but winning with an entertaining style of football never seen before at Tennessee.
“I hope they (Tennessee fans) enjoy the heck out of it,” said Heupel after the win over South Carolina. “We’re going to play fast and physical in all three phases of the game. Offensively, yeah we’re probably a little bit different than what’s happened, but the defense too, the ability to be multiple, to be aggressive. Our kids are competing really hard and I think that’s the first step to making this fan base and this state extremely proud of who we are on the football field.”
The quarterback quandary finally worked itself out with Hendon Hooker taking charge of the position. New additions like running back Tiyon Evans, and holdovers like wide receiver Velus Jones Jr. are finding ways to influence games. The at-times maligned offensive line is doing the pushing. Defensively, the Vols are thin at some spots but still making plays. Injuries are piling up but previously unknown guys are stepping up on both sides of the football.
Tennessee fans can be excused if they are giddy these days. What once looked like a probable 4-8, 5-7 type of season has the potential to turn into much more. Of course, the boogie man is right around the corner with a brutal stretch of 4 games ahead over the next 5 weeks. It’s quite possible that this 4-2 record turns into a 4-6 mark. But even if that happens, Tennessee fans are seeing a glimpse into what could very well be better days in the future.
During the Pruitt era, Tennessee football was borderline unwatchable. He was trying to win games in the style of Nick Saban … but the style of Nick Saban about 8 years previous … and without multiple first-round picks. Pruitt rarely adjusted based on his personnel. He stuck with Jarrett Guarantano at quarterback longer than he should have, and with the exception of a few weeks in 2019, the results showed that he made the wrong decision time and time again.
Heupel is sticking with the style that helped him succeed at UCF, but he also knows that he doesn’t have the bodies to do everything he wants right now. He preferred Joe Milton to be his quarterback, but Hooker is the better guy to run this offense. Heupel didn’t try to push the square peg into the round hole. He stayed with the hot hand.
If it’s working, just get out of the way.
Tennessee’s season is halfway done, and right now the glass is half full for Tennessee football.