Tennessee football just finished its best regular season since 2003, blasting Vanderbilt 56-0 to put a cherry on top of a 10-2 year.

The Vols did pretty incredible things this season. They downed Alabama for the first time in 15 years, earned their first 10-win regular season since 2003 and will likely play in a New Year’s 6 bowl in a few weeks. There were a few bumps along the way, and a College Football Playoff berth just slipped through their fingers, but it’s hard to ask for too much more if you’re a Vols fan.

After all, Tennessee is just not supposed to be here right now.

Let’s look back on a historic year for Tennessee football with 1 game left to play. Here are 10 takeaways from Tennessee’s 2022 incredible regular season.

1. Hendon Hooker is going down as a Tennessee legend

I mean, this one is obvious, right?

Hooker will finish his Tennessee career having thrown for 6,080 yards, 58 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. He was a Heisman frontrunner for most of the season, gave Tennessee a No. 1 ranking, led the Vols to 9 of their 10 wins and did so while being the ultimate ambassador for the University of Tennessee.

Josh Heupel said it best a few days ago. Hooker represents everything good about college football.

2. Joe Milton III still has some work to do, but will be the QB of the future

Milton took obvious steps toward being a more complete quarterback this season.

The Michigan transfer did not light the world on fire in his only start of the year against Vanderbilt. Let’s be fair — it was very rainy, and conditions were far from perfect for a good game under center. Even then, he showed flashes of the incredibly high ceiling he has.

Milton has one of the best arms in college football. There are very few people better suited to mold Milton into becoming a true starter than Heupel. Milton has waited his turn, and good things have happened to him in response.

The gunslinger finished the regular season with 702 yards passing, 7 touchdowns and 0 interceptions.

3. There is still some work to be done on defense, but crucial steps have been taken

Even the first negative on this list is an optimistic look at the future.

The Vols’ defense was just not championship level this season. Tennessee can have the best offense in college football all it wants, but you still have to be able to get a few stops when it matters. There were plenty of instances when Tennessee did and did not do that this regular season.

Pitt and Alabama come to mind. Both of those wins don’t happen without important defensive stops — shutting down the Panthers in OT, and allowing Chase McGrath a shot at a field goal by holding Bryce Young out of the end zone on the Crimson Tide’s final drive.

Heupel has recruited well on defense. With good coaching, that unit can become one that can battle for championships.

4. Jalin Hyatt will make an NFL GM look incredible

Hyatt finally had the breakout year Vols fans have been waiting on.

With the unfortunate injury problems that Cedric Tillman went through, it seems almost certain that Hyatt will forgo his senior season to enter the NFL Draft following this year. His stock has never been and will never be higher, after all.

Hyatt is 32 yards from breaking the Tennessee single-season receiving record set by Robert Meachem in 2006. He finished the regular season with 1,276 yards receiving and 15 touchdowns. He had combined for 502 yards and 4 touchdowns in his previous 2 seasons, for those wondering at home.

His speed is otherworldly. As of now, Hyatt is a projected early 2nd-, late 1st-round NFL Draft pick. Wherever he ends up, he’s going to make an NFL GM look very, very good.

5. The offense can indeed dance with good defenses

There were whispers last season that Tennessee’s offense, while very good and explosive, could not dance with tough defenses. This season proved that was not entirely true.

The Vols scored 52 on Alabama, 40 on LSU and 44 on Kentucky. Some defenses there are better than others, but those are all good football teams that Tennessee made look silly. Only Georgia was really able to stop the Tennessee offense.

The Vols scored at least 34 points on every team they played except the Bulldogs.

6. Tennessee needs to improve on the road

Oh, and that loss to the Bulldogs in Athens was rough. Don’t act like I’m telling you otherwise.

Truth be told, Tennessee played just a few good games on the road this season. The Vols looked putrid against the Bulldogs and South Carolina, but also really struggled against Pitt at the beginning of the year. Tennessee was a different team in Week 13 than Week 2, but the truth is it was a healthy Kedon Slovis away from losing to the Panthers.

If you want to truly play with the big boys, you have to do it on their turf, too.

7. Tennessee’s rushing attack is A-OK

Remember earlier in the year when everyone was losing their minds over Lyn-J Dixon leaving right before the start of the season? Well, Jabari Small, Jaylen Wright and Dylan Sampson looked more than capable of handling themselves and, for the most part, avoided major injury problems.

Tennessee’s rushing attack was very strong, behind an offensive line that is not getting enough credit for its stout body of work. The Vols found a gem in Sampson and didn’t really even have to use their 4th stringer, Justin Williams-Thomas.

Wright, Small and Sampson are very likely to be back in orange and white next season.

8. Rodney Garner is one of the best position coaches in college football

The one bright spot on the defense was the defensive line. Coach Garner’s unit was not perfect by any means, but it absolutely won Tennessee a few games.

Byron Young and LaTrell Bumphus went through Senior Day festivities and are likely to be gone next season, Bumphus due to eligibility and Young to the draft. Keeping Garner around and building a line out of the future pieces Heupel has recruited is a necessity.

Building a strong defense starts there.

9. Tennessee’s ‘culture’ is fine

There were rumblings that Heupel had lost the locker room after Tennessee’s loss to South Carolina. Some say the defense quit on the team in that 63-38 loss.

Crazy talk.

Bad games (South Carolina) happen sometimes. Heupel heard the talk about the locker room after that ugly loss to the Gamecocks. Here’s what he had to say:

Rumors are often just that — rumors. Tennessee football is looking up, not down. And it doesn’t seem like it is satisfied with 10 wins, either.

10. Heupel can coach

The granddaddy of takeaways from Tennessee’s regular season should be that Heupel is absolutely the guy moving forward for the program.

I’ll keep beating this dead horse. Tennessee had a very thin roster, a bottom-tier record in the SEC and less than nothing to show for itself when Danny White hired Heupel in January 2021. The former UCF coach then built the Vols into a team that earned a No. 1 ranking, a legitimate shot at the College Football Playoff, the most electrifying offense in the sport, a 10-win season and likely a New Year’s 6 bowl appearance.

In about 22 months.

Heupel provides the best shot at stability Tennessee has had in a long, long time. Relevance seemed so far away for the Vols 2 years ago.

Yet here we are.