Tennessee is halfway home and way, way ahead of schedule
There’s no further valid argument to be contrary … the Tennessee Volunteers are one of the best teams in the nation.
They’ve won an overtime rock fight at Pittsburgh, exorcised their Florida demons, destroyed LSU in Baton Rouge, and last Saturday survived a 101-point war against their most hated rivals, the Alabama Crimson Tide.
That win, some 16 years in the making, firmly lets it be known that the Decade (and a half) of Dysfunction at Tennessee is over.
The Vols’ rebuild is away ahead of schedule. They are an SEC and college football Playoff contender right now. Not in 2 years. Not next year.
But here’s the thing. For all the talk, all the emotion, all the drama that this run has brought Tennessee …
Their regular season is only half over.
The Vols still have 6 games left to play, including 2 against nationally ranked SEC opponents that have high postseason dreams of their own. As great as the last month and a half have been for Tennessee, there is still a big part of the mountain left to climb.
Tennessee hasn’t seriously been in the college football conversation for a while. They haven’t won a national title or the SEC championship since 1998. Their last major bowl game appearance came in 1999.
The last time that Tennessee was in a position to even be in the same zip code as this one didn’t produce positive results. Back in 2016, the Vols were 5-0, having defeated Appalachian State in overtime, Virginia Tech at the Battle at Bristol, and finally following those victories up with wins over rivals Florida and Georgia.
The Vols had the inside track to the SEC East title and the conference championship game. There was no reason to believe that they wouldn’t be in Atlanta with wins already in the bag over the Bulldogs and Gators.
Then Tennessee lost to Texas A&M in overtime, and got bludgeoned at home by Alabama. At that point, they were emotionally spent. They finished the season with historic collapses against South Carolina and Vanderbilt, and ended up playing in the Music City Bowl.
No Georgia Dome in December. No Sugar Bowl appearance for the first time in a generation. Just another trip to Nashville.
But I don’t expect a late-season swoon this time around.
The 2016 team was coached by Butch Jones, who seemed more concerned with catchphrases and his public perception than winning games. That Tennessee team also had key players in the training room more than they were on practice field. By the time the Vandy game rolled around, the Vols were down to 2 scholarship defensive tackles.
Yes, the 2022 Volunteers have some injuries. The absence of wide receiver Cedric Tillman since the Akron game would decimate lesser teams. But the Vols haven’t missed a beat on offense. Otherwise, this team is pretty healthy, a testament to the strength and conditioning staff.
Having Josh Heupel on the sidelines gives Tennessee a coach who isn’t going to panic in stressful situations. After Alabama took the lead on a scoop-and-score midway through the 4th quarter, the Vols didn’t lose focus. They stuck with the game plan and it paid off. Nobody is expecting any drama Saturday against UT Martin, but if things go sideways in the games that follow, the Vols have someone in place to calm things down.
But it won’t be just on Heupel and that Tennessee coaching staff to keep this team motivated properly. And this is where the Vols are also in great shape. They have leadership across the board, with veteran players who have been through the wilderness, some of whom chose to stick around following the firing of Jeremy Pruitt.
Quarterback Hendon Hooker, the Heisman Trophy front-runner (yeah, I said it), is in his 6th year playing college football. He’s playing at a ridiculously high level in a complicated offense system. Alabama had a top-10 defense nationally and Hooker carved them up for 52 points, the most the Tide have allowed … since 1907!
I’ve said this for a few weeks. Tennessee fans who pine for the good old days have to know by now that the good old days are currently happening.
And there is still half a season to go.