The Tennessee Volunteers will look to erase the memory of last season’s disappointing 3-7 record and reverse their fortunes with a fresh start under new head coach Josh Heupel.
Only time will tell if Heupel and his new-look Vols will be up for the challenge. But make no mistake, it is a significant challenge indeed. While Heupel seems to be off to a solid start in terms of changing the culture on Rocky Top and getting his fast-paced spread offense up to speed, there are still plenty of hurdles to overcome, in large part due to the mess left behind by Jeremy Pruitt and the previous regime. There is still the matter of potential NCAA sanctions. And a mass exodus of players via the transfer portal this offseason left Tennessee short on experience and depth at several positions. That said, Heupel was able to utilize the transfer portal to help replenish some of Tennessee’s more glaring deficiencies as well.
The return to a normal schedule in 2021 does bode favorably for Heupel and the Vols. While there is no such thing as an easy schedule in the SEC, the Volunteers' 2021 slate looks to be more forgiving than it has been in recent seasons. Eight of Tennessee’s 12 games will be played inside Neyland Stadium. And the non-conference slate appears to be relatively non-threatening, with the exception of Pitt. Of course, the Vols still have to deal with the grueling task of facing Alabama and Florida on the road, as well as Georgia in Knoxville. Matchups against Ole Miss, Missouri and Kentucky could be problematic as well.
Tennessee Football Game-by-Game Predictions for 2021
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Considering all that’s transpired this offseason with attrition and the ongoing NCAA investigation, 6-6 would be a good debut for new Tennessee coach Josh Heupel. The Volunteers should be favored in at least five games, with the matchup against Pitt a toss-up in Week 2. Although the quarterback battle remains unsettled deep into fall practice, Heupel has some talented options to turn to, including Hendon Hooker, Harrison Bailey and Joe Milton. The Volunteers also have capable playmakers on the outside returning, but the line has to play better than it did in 2020. The defense is likely to be a work in progress under new play-caller Tim Banks, but the addition of a couple of players through the transfer portal bolstered the depth at every level. A 7-5 mark means Heupel exceeded expectations, but 6-6 or 5-7 is more realistic given the roster situation.
Mark Ross (@AthlonMarkR)
After Jeremy Pruitt's disastrous tenure, there's really only one direction for Tennessee to go under new head coach Josh Heupel. And the Volunteers should at least eclipse last year's win total (three) without too much trouble. However, given the mess that Pruitt left behind, highlighted by the ongoing NCAA investigation and a roster in transition, progress for Heupel and company can't be measured just by the win column. The Vols have both a tough SEC West draw and some tricky divisional road trips. Simply leading Tennessee to a bowl game in his first season would represent a very successful debut for Heupel.
Rob McVey (@Rob_UTVOLS)
It’s difficult to gauge this Tennessee team in the midst of such a huge overhaul with so many unknowns. Josh Heupel does bring a proven offensive system to Knoxville. However, the lack of experience and proven playmakers on that side of the football does leave room for skepticism. I do think there is talent at the skill positions, and playmakers will emerge sooner than later. Heupel also has three solid candidates to choose from at quarterback, all of which have plenty of upside. The real challenge will come on the defensive side of the football, where star power and depth are still sorely lacking overall. And based on Heupel’s defenses during his time at UCF, it will likely be tough sledding for that side of the ball as well. The reality is that the success of this team will be predicated on Heupel’s ability to get this offense rolling in short order. If he can make that happen, Tennessee should be competitive and find itself in the win column more often than not. Seven wins is probably a little optimistic and likely the ceiling for this team given the circumstances, but I don’t think it is an unreasonable expectation if things do go according to plan.