Tennessee's coaching search to replace Jeremy Pruitt has ended with UCF's Josh Heupel taking over in Knoxville in 2021. Heupel marks the fifth coach on Rocky Top over the last 13 seasons. Athletic director Danny White hired Heupel at UCF, so there's no doubt the familiarity should help as Tennessee moves forward to rebuild its football program.
The Volunteers have posted seven losing seasons since 2010, recorded only one year of more than nine victories since '05, and finished in the top 25 just two times since '08. That's a long fall from winning at least eight games every year from 1989 to 2004.
Pruitt's dismissal left a long list of question marks for the next coaching staff to address. Potential NCAA sanctions are looming, a handful of key players entered the transfer portal, and a new staff inherits a team that won just three games in 2020.
Heupel – a former Oklahoma quarterback – isn't stepping into a program that's firing on all cylinders. Instead, this is a rebuilding project. Heupel has a solid resume from stops at Oklahoma (2006-14), Utah State, Missouri, and as UCF's head coach.
Is Heupel the right hire to get Tennessee's program back on track? Let's take a look at three reasons why this hire will work out better than Pruitt and three reasons it could fail:
Why Hiring Heupel Will Work
Winning at a high level in this era of college football requires an elite offense (as evidenced by the College Football Playoff teams and national champions). Heupel has excelled in this department. UCF averaged more than 42 points a game and 6.6 yards per play in all three of his seasons in Orlando. The Knights were also one of the best in college football at producing big plays during Heupel's tenure. The Volunteers can also expect a fast pace to run as many plays as possible. UCF ran 75.8 plays a game in 2018, 78.2 in '19, and 85.9 in '20.
Experience, Winning and Close Losses
Yes, winning in the AAC and at UCF is a little different than the SEC. However, Heupel's record was an impressive 28-8 over three years with the Knights. He won the conference title and guided the program to a New Year's Six Bowl in 2018 and finished with a No. 24 ranking following a 10-win campaign in '19. Of his eight losses at UCF, four came in 2020 – a year with a ton of week-to-week uncertainty with COVID-19 and a UCF roster that was hit by a handful of opt outs before the season started. Of Heupel's eight losses with the Knights, seven came by eight points or less. Another factor to consider: Pruitt had no head-coaching experience before taking over on Rocky Top. That's a checkmark in favor of Heupel after three years in Orlando.
Alignment With the AD and Staff
There's some uncertainty surrounding the program with potential NCAA sanctions. However, Heupel and White spent the last three years together at UCF, and there's no doubt they are on the same page. White is a needed presence, as Tennessee is desperate for stability at the top and someone who can set the vision for the athletic department. Heupel is working for a boss that he's familiar with, and both know they are stepping into a job with some uncertainty for the future. Heupel will be near the bottom of the SEC in annual salary, as his contract will pay $4 million a season. However, the salary will afford Tennessee a chance to fill out a good staff and coaches who know the SEC to help Heupel shift into a new (and tougher) league. Finding the right mix on defense is critical. There should be plenty of cash available for Heupel to hire his desired staff.
Why Hiring Heupel Won't Work
Can He Build a Program?
Heupel's track record in Orlando was very good. However, there's a difference between maintaining and building a program. UCF went 13-0 in the year prior to Heupel's arrival and some of the foundation for the program's success was established by Scott Frost. At Tennessee, Heupel is inheriting a team that went 3-7 in 2020 and has just one winning season over the last four years. Can Heupel overcome the first wave of roster challenges and potential NCAA sanctions to build a long-term winner? Without previous experience in doing so, it's tough to know how he will execute a long-term rebuilding strategy in the SEC. There were concerns among the UCF fan base the program was trending in the wrong direction at the end of 2020. Due to the unusual season, it's easy to dismiss 2020 as a small blip on the radar. However, those are all factors that will be under the microscope going into the SEC.
The Offense is Set... But What About Defense?
As mentioned above, Heupel's defensive staff hires are going to be critical to the success of the program. Based on Heupel's track record, scoring points shouldn't be a problem. However, the Volunteers have finished seventh or worse in the SEC in scoring in each of the last five years. UCF finished first or second in the AAC in fewest yards per play allowed in Heupel's first two years at the helm but regressed significantly in 2020. The Knights surrendered 6.2 yards per play and 33.2 points a game. Was that a one-year blip due to the opt outs, transfers and injuries that hit the depth chart? Or will Heupel struggle to build a standout defense to match his high-powered offense? Keeping Kevin Steele on staff would be a good start.
Penalties were also a problem for UCF the last three years. The Knights finished ninth or worse in the AAC in penalties and yards a game. The 2020 UCF team averaged 9.2 penalties a game, which was one of the worst marks in college football.
The Current Roster and Recruiting
The task in Knoxville is different than the one Heupel faced in Orlando. Official 2021 predictions are months away, but Tennessee is likely to be picked near the bottom of the SEC. At quarterback, Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker, Harrison Bailey and true freshman Kaidon Salter is a talented trio to compete for the starting job. However, the top two running backs (Eric Gray and Ty Chandler) left as transfers. Also, the team's leading receiver, Josh Palmer, is off to the NFL. Up front, standout guard Trey Smith, tackle Wanya Morris and center Brandon Kennedy have departed. Top defensive player and standout linebacker Henry To'o-To'o is in the transfer portal. Those are all significant challenges for Heupel to address in year one. If the losses pile up in 2021 and '22, how will this staff recruit? At UCF, Heupel's classes ranked No. 62 in 2018, No. 60 in '19, and No. 75 in '20. The '18 class finished second in the AAC, while the '19 haul was first. However, the '20 class finished seventh in the league.
(Top photo courtesy of @Vol_Football)