Tennessee football: 10 highs and lows from 2021 regular season
Tennessee football is never boring.
We’ve learned that over the past decade and a half, and the trend certainly continued in 2021.
Let’s head into the time machine and look back at the highs and a few lows from the 2021 Volunteers regular season.
High: Tennessee beats Kentucky
As much as things change, they stay the same.
The Vols’ dominance over Kentucky continued with a thrilling 45-42 victory in Lexington. Tennessee’s quick strike offense (more on that on a moment) was on full display as Hendon Hooker threw a career-high 4 touchdown passes. The Vols had less than 14 minutes of possession. Kentucky never punted.
And the Vols still won.
Since 1984, Tennessee has only lost to the Wildcats 3 times.
High: The Tennessee-Ole Miss atmosphere
I’ve been going to games at Neyland Stadium since 1994 and the Vols/Ole Miss contest in October is on my short list of memorable experiences. The atmosphere was electric. The crowd was insanely loud throughout the evening. It was college football on a grand display … until the final two minutes (which we will also get to later).
High: Hendon Hooker saves the Vols
Tennessee’s quarterback situation has been unsettled to say the least since Josh Dobbs left campus in 2016.
Grad transfer Hendon Hooker was kind of the forgotten man in the Vols QB room. But Brian Maurer quit, Kaidon Salter was dismissed, Joe Milton was ineffective and eventually Harrison Bailey bolted.
All Hooker has done is lead the Vols to a winning season and a bowl berth, with 2,567 yards passing, 561 yards rushing and a combined 31 touchdowns.
Hooker has been a godsend for this team.
High: Josh Heupel’s offense
We shouldn’t be surprised that new head coach Josh Heupel produced a successful offense this year. His scheme has worked everywhere he has been.
Tennessee has had some offenses that have been painful to watch in recent years. This group lights up the scoreboard with an entertaining, fast-paced style.
High: Jeremy Banks’ big year
When Henry To’o’ To’o transferred to Alabama, that put a ton of pressure on redshirt junior linebacker Jeremy Banks.
The Cordova native was up to the challenge, leading the Vols with 108 tackles. Linebacker is a loaded position in the conference, but Banks deserves consideration for SEC honors.
High: Cedric Tillman’s emergence
He had been on the roster for 3 years, with only 8 catches in 25 games before 2021. But Cedric Tillman had a breakout season for the 2021 Vols.
Tillman is tops on the team with 57 catches for 931 yards and 9 touchdowns.
Against the best defense in college football, Tillman was tremendous. Georgia couldn’t stop Tillman that afternoon. He put up a career-high 10 catches for 200 yards and a touchdown.
High: Defensive coordinator Tim Banks makes a difference
The transfer portal gutted Tennessee, especially on defense. Heupel’s biggest hire would be for defensive coordinator.
Tim Banks came over from Penn State, where he was the co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach. He has worked wonders with an undermanned unit.
Low: The Tennessee/Ole Miss “riot”‘
There are a lot of excuses to go around for the Neyland riot. The nighttime kickoff meant extra “hydrating.” The officials could not keep control of the game. The rampant “cramping” from Rebels players on a 55-degree evening, which slowed Tennessee’s offense time and time again.
But the reaction of some Tennessee fans was over the top. There’s no excuse for throwing objects from the stands.
Low: The Florida loss
For many years Vols fans have wished that the Florida game was later on the schedule. Tennessee often plays its best football in November, while the Gators are sometimes running on fumes by then.
That was absolutely the case in 2021. The Vols finished the season with a flurry, winning 3 of their last 4, while the Gators collapsed and fired head coach Dan Mullen.
Tennessee’s 38-14 defeat on Sept. 25 in Gainesville still stings.
Low: Disappointing Joe Milton
Watching Tennessee’s spring game, you couldn’t help but notice Michigan transfer quarterback Joe Milton, especially the absolute cannon he has for a right arm. That was never the issue.
Milton was Heupel’s choice heading into the 2021 season, but in week 2 Milton was ineffective and injured in the loss to Pittsburgh. He never got back on track. His accuracy issues brought back bad memories of the Jarrett Guarantano era.
Milton will have opportunities to succeed at Tennessee, but not if he can’t get his throws on target.