Last weekend Tennessee’s dreams of the College Football Playoff were dashed after a 63-38 loss at South Carolina. But by far the worst part of an awful night in Columbia came in the 4th quarter.

Vols QB Hendon Hooker ran a zone read and planted his left leg into the turf while attempting to cut through a hole, something he had done so many times in his football life. But this time his leg buckled, and most observers knew immediately the result.

Suddenly the Playoff didn’t mean very much. Nor did Hooker’s increasingly legitimate Heisman bid. Hooker had torn his ACL. His college career was over.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t a spectacular ending to Hooker’s time at Tennessee. But that doesn’t mean his time at Tennessee wasn’t spectacular.

In a little under 2 years, Hooker threw for 6,080 yards and 58 TDs, while only tossing 5 INTs. His yardage total ranks 8th all-time; his TD total is 5th. He ranks 5th (3,135 this season) and 11th (2,945 last season) on the Vols’ single-season list for passing yards, too. The injury prevented him from threatening Peyton Manning’s single-season mark of 3,819 yards.

Hooker added 1,050 rushing yards and 10 TDs, too. He was the biggest reason Tennessee became the top-ranked offense in all of college football. Hooker turned out to be a perfect fit for Josh Heupel’s Blur Ball system.

But Hooker didn’t come to Tennessee to play for Heupel. Hooker committed to Tennessee in early January 2021 after 4 years at Virginia Tech, knowing that the Vols QB incumbents Jarrett Guarantano and JT Shrout were transferring. The starting job would be his for the taking.

But coach Jeremy Pruitt, to whom Hooker committed, was fired less than 2 weeks later.

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Heupel soon was hired and wasn’t completely happy with what he saw in the QB room. Heupel brought in Michigan transfer Joe Milton, and eventually gave him the starting job.

Imagine you are Hooker, sitting the bench to start your 5th season in college football, playing for a coach you didn’t choose. But instead of sulking or looking for greener pastures, Hooker stayed engaged. He got his chance only 2 weeks into the 2021 season when Milton was hurt during the Pittsburgh game.

Hooker took control of the position and the offense, starting the next 22 games. And while his worth as a team leader and de facto program spokesperson goes beyond wins and losses, we aren’t naive enough to ignore that this is a results-based business. Hooker went 15-7 as a starter at Tennessee.

The Vols started 8-0 and rose to No. 1 in the Playoff poll. They don’t achieve anywhere near the success that they have without Hooker under center.

Tennessee’s futility against their biggest rivals stretches back to the mid-2000s. With regards to Florida, the Vols had only beaten them once since 2004 entering their Week 4 clash. Hooker accounted for 461 yards of total offense and 3 scores against the Gators, leading UT to a 38-33 win on September 24.

Hooker’s shining moment came on the biggest stage when Tennessee faced Alabama on Oct. 15. It was an electric atmosphere at Neyland Stadium, as the Vols were trying to snap a 15-game losing streak to the Tide. Nine different starting quarterbacks were a part of that stretch of futility. Rarely were those games even close.

Hooker threw for 385 yards and 5 TDs while also rushing for 56 yards. He also had a rare INT, plus a fumbled exchange that led to a Bama scoop-and-score midway through the 4th quarter to give the Tide the lead.

Those moments could have turned into trauma for the Vols. Other Vols teams certainly would have folded at the first sign of adversity against Nick Saban.

But Hooker’s confidence radiated through that sideline. There was no panic. Hooker led the Vols on the game-tying drive. Then, after a missed Alabama field goal, Tennessee took possession at their own 32, with 15 seconds left and the score even at 49.

Most teams would have played for OT. But Tennessee’s offense — with a QB of Hooker’s caliber  — never thought about doing such a thing.

The rest became history. An 18-yard pass to Ramel Keyton and a 27-yard strike to Bru McCoy put Tennessee in position to win. Incredibly, Hooker had moved the Vols 45 yards in 13 seconds.

Before Chase McGrath’s game-winning kick from 40 yards, a VFL Films camera caught Hooker simply say, “It’s over,” and he was right. The goalposts came down, the cigars were lit, and Tennessee had its biggest win in nearly a quarter of a century.

None of that happens without Hendon Hooker. None of this dramatic and improbable return for Tennessee to the college football landscape happens without Hendon Hooker.

He still might earn a trip to New York City for the Heisman Trophy award ceremony, but that doesn’t really matter.

Hendon Hooker’s place in Tennessee football lore is secure.