It’s been a magical first half of the 2022 college football season for the Tennessee Volunteers, who now find themselves with a perfect 6-0 (3-0 SEC) record and a No. 3 national ranking. The last time the Vols made it to the midpoint of a season with an unblemished record was 1998, a season that culminated in Tennessee going undefeated and winning the national championship.
While the Vols’ perfect record to this point is highly impressive on its own, the journey to get to 6-0 has been nothing short of remarkable. Tennessee had to navigate one of the most difficult slates in the nation in the first half of the season, ultimately coming away with four wins over Top 25 opponents — more than any other school in the country. Road wins over Pitt and LSU were huge, but snapping long losing streaks against hated rivals Florida and Alabama was monumental, to say the least.
Tennessee also boasts the top offense in the country, averaging a blistering 551 yards and 47.7 points per game — led by one of the best quarterbacks in the nation in Hendon Hooker. It’s an extremely strong resume for a team that wasn’t even ranked in the AP poll prior to the start of the season. It’s even more impressive when you consider that this football program was absolutely left for dead prior to the arrival of head coach Josh Heupel, who was just aptly named the best coach in the nation for the first half of the season, per the AP. Heupel and his staff have miraculously transformed this program from a struggling bottom feeder to a legitimate contender in just their second season. Not only that, they have brought excitement back to Rocky Top, and a culture of winning football that has been sorely lacking for far too long.
The Volunteers will now embark on the second half of their 2022 season with a huge wave of momentum, looking to complete an already storybook campaign with their first perfect season since ‘98. That being said, there is plenty of football left to be played for a Tennessee squad that now has a much bigger target on its back. The Vols still have some deficiencies that need to be addressed as well, particularly on the defensive side of the football. And difficult matchups loom — most notably the Nov. 11 clash in Athens against the defending national champion Bulldogs — a game that will likely decide the SEC East.
So, with that in mind, let’s take a glimpse into the future to see what may lie ahead for the Vols. But first, let’s look back at the first half of the season in the form of a few well-deserved awards.
Offensive MVP: Hendon Hooker, QB
Following an absolutely stellar first season in Knoxville, Hooker has continued to flourish in Josh Heupel’s fast-paced offense through the first six games of the 2022 season. The former Virginia Tech transfer has completed 70 percent of his pass attempts for 1,817 yards with 15 touchdowns against just one interception. He leads the SEC in passing yards per attempt (10.7) and passer rating (187.72) — ranking second nationally in both categories. The dual-threat signal-caller also has rushed for 287 yards and three scores to help lead the conference in total offense — accounting for 351 yards per game. He has twice been named SEC Offensive Player of the Week for standout performances against Florida and LSU. And following Hooker’s monster performance in the win over Alabama, he has cemented himself as a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender.
Wide receiver Jalin Hyatt, who now leads the nation in receiving touchdowns (10) and sits atop the SEC in receiving yards (595), also deserves an honorable mention for his efforts through the first six games.
Defensive MVP: Byron Young, DE
A preseason first-team All-SEC selection, the talented edge rusher has been instrumental for the Tennessee defense during the first half of the season, racking up a team-high 3.5 sacks and 11 quarterback hurries. He has earned SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week accolades twice already this season for big performances against both LSU and Pitt.
Best Moment of the First Half: Chase McGrath’s game-winning, 40-yard field goal against Alabama
It was by no means a good-looking kick, but there wasn't a prettier sight for Tennessee fans than McGrath’s 40-yard kick "knuckleballing" its way through the uprights as time expired to secure the Vols’ shocking 52-49 victory over Alabama. It marked Tennessee's first win against the archrival Crimson Tide in 16 years. In the process, McGrath’s game-winning kick helped Tennessee preserve its undefeated record, as fans stormed the field in celebration. It also proved to be a tale of redemption for McGrath, who had missed an extra point earlier in the contest.
Best Newcomer: Bru McCoy, WR
The USC transfer (by way of Texas) has truly made his presence felt in his first six games on Rocky Top. Along with breakout wide receivers Jalin Hyatt and Ramel Keyton, McCoy has stepped up big time for the Vols during the first half of the season, helping fill the void left by injured star receiver Cedric Tillman. McCoy currently ranks in the top 10 in the SEC in receiving yards (389) and yards per reception (17.68). Two of his 22 receptions have gone for touchdowns. More importantly, it was McCoy’s impressive 27-yard grab with just nine seconds remaining that set up the game-winning field goal that stunned Alabama.
Biggest Surprise: 6-0 start
Even the greatest of prognosticators could not have predicted the Vols' fairytale first half. While expectations were raised following a better-than-expected seven-win season in Josh Heupel’s first year on Rocky Top, no one on the planet could foresee Tennessee being undefeated midway through the ‘22 campaign. And yet, here they are. It’s even more remarkable when you look at who the Vols beat to get here, with four wins coming against Top 25 opposition, including victories against Alabama, Florida, LSU and Pitt.
Three Things to Watch in the Second Half
1. Hooker for Heisman?
Tennessee’s star quarterback is already firmly in the Heisman conversation after a phenomenal first half of the season. So much so, that the AP already named him the best offensive player in the country for the first half of the season. And the final six games of the regular season hold even more promise for the dual-threat signal-caller. With Cedric Tillman expected to return in the very near future, and an offensive line that continues to show improvement with each passing week, the sky is the limit for Hooker and this high-powered Tennessee offense.
2. How far can Tennessee go?
If the first half of the season is any indication, Tennessee definitely appears poised to make a serious run at a national championship. The Volunteers will most likely be favored in five of its final six regular-season contests, the lone exception being a road trip to face Georgia. While the Vols can ill afford to look past Kentucky, a road win against the Bulldogs would all but assure the Big Orange of its first SEC East title since 2007, and a trip to Atlanta to play for a conference crown. Even with a loss to the defending national champs, Tennessee could still be sitting pretty at 11-1, with a legitimate chance to earn a coveted spot in the College Football Playoff. The Vols will need to stay relatively healthy down the stretch and have a few lucky breaks go their way, but Tennessee is as good a candidate to win it all as any team in the country right now.
3. Defending the pass
One thing that could stand in the way of a potential championship season for the Vols is a defense that has struggled mightily to slow down opposing passing attacks. The Tennessee defense should be applauded for a stingy run defense that ranks in the top 10 nationally, and for coming up big in critical moments. However, only two FBS teams have allowed more yards through the air than the Vols, who are giving up 332 per game. It’s a glaring weakness, that without improvement, could very well derail Tennessee’s dream season.
Ranking the Toughest Remaining Games on the Schedule
1. at Georgia, Nov. 5
2. Kentucky, Oct. 29
3. at South Carolina, Nov. 19
4. Missouri, Nov. 12
5. at Vanderbilt, Nov. 26
6. UT Martin, Oct. 22
Podcast: Midseason Review, Second-Half Predictions, and Dream Conference Championship Games
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.