New Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel looks to right the ship on Rocky Top
The Tennessee Volunteers entered the 2020 college football season with high hopes, riding the momentum of a six-game winning streak. They proceeded to extend that streak to eight games following a 2-0 start. And then the bottom fell out, as the Vols would go on to lose seven of their next eight games by double-digit deficits, finishing the COVID-shortened season at 3-7. And that was just the tip of the iceberg for a Tennessee football program that would once again find itself mired in turmoil following an internal investigation into potential NCAA violations, leading to the school self-reporting multiple infractions, and ultimately bringing an abrupt end to the Jeremy Pruitt and Phillip Fulmer era in Knoxville.
The dust hasn't completely settled on Rocky Top, and the slate isn't completely clean with likely NCAA sanctions forthcoming. However, VolNation appears eager to begin the next chapter of Tennessee football with new head coach Josh Heupel at the helm. The challenges are plentiful, and it will take some time to right the ship, but hope is not completely lost for the 2021 campaign. Here are three reasons to be optimistic about Tennessee's upcoming season.
1. A fresh start
The lack of wins and player development last season made it abundantly clear that Tennessee football was heading in the wrong direction under Pruitt. Pile on a slew of allegations and NCAA violations, and there was no longer any doubt that the program was sorely in need of an overhaul. Now the quest begins to establish a new culture in Knoxville and lay the foundation for the future of Big Orange football under the direction of Heupel and athletic director Danny White. Only time will tell if the Heupel/White era will be a success at Tennessee. But it will be exciting to see what Heupel and the new-look Vols bring to the table this fall. At a minimum, this much-needed change provides a fresh opportunity to build towards a bright future, while bringing a renewed energy to Rocky Top. None of which would be possible under the former regime.
2. Offense, offense, offense!
There were many sources of frustration during the Pruitt era, but none more so than Tennessee's lackluster offense. In three seasons under Pruitt, the Vols never ranked higher than 100th nationally in total offense or 98th in scoring offense, averaging a disappointing 346 yards and 22.8 points per game during that span. During that same span, Josh Heupel's offenses at UCF averaged a blistering 544 yards and 42.9 points per game, never ranking outside of the top five nationally in total offense. When it comes to offense, Heupel's resume speaks for itself. His offenses have been successful at every stop along the way, including a stint in the SEC as offensive coordinator at Missouri. And there's no reason to believe that his offense won't translate well at Tennessee. It might take a little time to get things rolling, but the Vols should be much improved on that side of the football even in year one. At the very least, Heupel's up-tempo spread attack should be a lot of fun to watch. And with the SEC transitioning into more of an offensive-minded league, where putting plenty of points on the scoreboard has almost become mandatory for success, the timing couldn't be better. Defense remains a concern, but Heupel's new-look offense should give Tennessee a fighting chance most weeks. You couldn't say the same under Pruitt.
3. Quarterback whisperer
If you're going to field a successful offense in the SEC, it starts with the quarterback position. And there may be no better person to develop that position at Tennessee than Heupel. In addition to being a highly successful college quarterback himself, Heupel's track record of producing top-flight signal-callers as a coach has been impeccable to this point. Some of the highlights include — Sam Bradford (2008 Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 overall NFL draft pick), Landry Jones (No. 3 in NCAA career passing yards), Jordan Love (first-round NFL draft pick), Drew Lock (set single-season SEC touchdown record and taken No. 42 overall in the 2019 NFL Draft), McKenzie Milton (2018 AAC Offensive Player of the Year), and Dillon Gabriel (broke UCF freshman passing yards record with 3,653).
The Vols lost quarterbacks Jarrett Guarantano and J.T. Shrout to the transfer portal. Guarantano's exit perhaps being a reason for optimism in and of itself for most Vol fans. But the cupboard is far from bare at the quarterback position for Tennessee. Former five-star recruit Harrison Bailey, Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker, third-year signal-caller Brian Maurer, and incoming four-star freshman Kaidon Salter will all be vying to become Heupel's next star pupil. And based on Heupel's extensive history of producing elite quarterbacks, the lucky winner of the Vols' forthcoming quarterback competition looks to have a very bright future. More importantly, it will go a long way in leading the Tennessee offense to much greener pastures moving forward.
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.
(Top photo courtesy of utsports.com)