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Tennessee Football: 2022 Team Awards

The Volunteers' successful regular season was highlighted by some impressive offensive performances and one unforgettable home win.
Hendon Hooker, Tennessee Volunteers Football

Before he got hurt, Hendon Hooker had positioned himself as one of the leading contenders for the Heisman Trophy while leading Tennessee to the top spot in the initial College Football Playoff rankings. 

The Tennessee Volunteers' 2022 regular season may not have had the fairy-tale ending that fans had hoped for after starting the season 8-0 with a No. 1 ranking in the initial College Football Playoff rankings. Nevertheless, it has been a magical run and a season to remember for a Tennessee program that began the year ranked outside of the AP Top 25. And it will end on Dec. 30 when the Volunteers take on ACC champion Clemson in the Orange Bowl.

Much of the credit goes to head coach Josh Heupel, the architect of Tennessee's high-powered offense. In just his second year at the helm, Heupel has sparked a remarkable turnaround for the Vols, which is no small feat considering the abysmal circumstances he inherited when he first arrived in Knoxville. Heupel and his staff have not only brought excitement back to Rocky Top but also a culture of winning football that has been sorely lacking for far too long.

Tennessee definitely overachieved in Year 2 of the Heupel era — reaching the 10-win mark in the regular season for the first time since 2003 and bringing an end to long losing streaks against hated rivals Alabama and Florida. The Vols also finished the regular season ranked No. 1 in the nation in both scoring and total offense.

Sure, there were a couple of major disappointments down the stretch — most notably the blowout loss to South Carolina in which Tennessee also lost star quarterback and Heisman Trophy hopeful Hendon Hooker to a season-ending ACL injury. But all in all, the 2022 regular season was a massive success, generating plenty of memorable moments and standout performances. And there's still one more high-profile game to go.

So, with that in mind, it only seems fitting to take a look back at some of the highs and lows that encompassed a very entertaining 2022 campaign for the Volunteers and hand out some awards.

Offensive MVP: Hendon Hooker, QB

The driving force behind the nation's top-ranked offense, Hooker put together a phenomenal super senior season for the Vols — passing for 3,135 yards with 27 touchdowns against just two interceptions while adding 430 yards and five touchdowns on the ground in 11 games. The regular season concluded with Hooker tied for the national lead in passing yards per attempt (9.5), while also ranking in the top five nationally in completion percentage (69.6), passer efficiency rating (175.51), and QBR (89.5). Hooker earned SEC Offensive Player of the Week honors on three separate occasions this season. And there was a time, not long ago, when he was widely considered the front-runner to win the Heisman Trophy. Unfortunately, a season-ending injury in the loss to South Carolina derailed his chances to become Tennessee's first-ever Heisman winner. However, Hooker continues to be in contention for several prestigious SEC and national awards.

Defensive MVP: Byron Young, DE

It's fair to say that no one really stood out on a consistent basis on the defensive side for the Vols this season. An argument could be made for linebacker Aaron Beasley and safety Trevon Flowers. Both players put up decent numbers, but both players were wildly inconsistent and graded out poorly more often than not. An MVP argument also could be made for polarizing linebacker Jeremy Banks, who has been touted by many as the heart of Tennessee's defense. However, Banks' numbers left plenty to be desired, as he saw a significant drop-off on the stat sheet compared to last season. That pretty much leaves Young to take the honor. Like the players mentioned above, Young wasn't exactly a pillar of consistency. But the preseason first-team All-SEC selection did lead the Vols in sacks (5), quarterback hurries (14), and tackles for a loss (10) during the regular season. He also earned SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week accolades twice this season for standout performances against both LSU and Pitt.

Best Freshman: Dylan Sampson, RB

A former three-star prospect out of Baton Rouge, Sampson made a nice splash in his first season on Rocky Top. The speedy running back rushed for 397 yards and six touchdowns on 58 carries in nine games, with an impressive 6.8 yards per carry average. He also caught three passes for 24 yards. Sampson's best performance came in the regular-season finale against Vanderbilt — racking up a career-best 131 rushing yards and a touchdown on just 12 carries in the 56-0 blowout of the Commodores, garnering SEC Co-Freshman of the Week honors.

Best Play of the Season: Chase McGrath's game-winning 40-yard field goal against Alabama

It was by no means a good-looking kick, but there was no prettier sight for Tennessee fans than McGrath's 40-yarder "knuckleballing" its way through the uprights as time expired to secure the Vols' 52-49 victory over Alabama. It marked Tennessee's first win against the archrival Crimson Tide in 16 years. It also proved to be a tale of redemption for McGrath, who had missed an extra point earlier in the contest.

Best Performance (Player): Jalin Hyatt vs. Alabama

Hyatt's long-awaited breakout season was chock-full of highlight performances. But none were more impressive than his standout effort in the 52-49 upset victory over Alabama. Hyatt piled up a career-high 207 receiving yards on six catches, breaking the single-game school record for receiving touchdowns with five. The monster performance also garnered SEC and National Player of the Week accolades. Hyatt concluded the regular season with an SEC-best 67 catches for 1,267 yards and an FBS-best 15 receiving touchdowns. Tennessee's first-ever Biletnikoff Award Finalist already has the school record for receiving touchdowns in a single season and needs just 32 yards in the bowl game (if he doesn't opt out) to eclipse Robert Meachem's single-season school record for receiving yards.

Best Performance (Team): 44-6 win over No. 19-ranked Kentucky

A strong case could be made for a number of standout team performances this season. But the 44-6 win over then No. 19-ranked Kentucky was probably the Vols' most complete performance against a solid opponent. The Tennessee offense was balanced, efficient, and relatively mistake-free against one of the top defenses in the SEC. Defensively, it was the Volunteers' best performance of the season, giving up a season-low 205 yards. Tennessee's defense also completely shut down top NFL prospect Will Levis, limiting him to just 98 passing yards with zero touchdowns and three interceptions. Levis was sacked four times as well.

Defining Moment: 52-49 upset of top-ranked Alabama

There were a few monumental moments for the Volunteers this season, but none were bigger than the upset win against Alabama. Not only did Tennessee bring an end to a 15-game losing streak against Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide, but the upset victory also helped propel Tennessee football back into the spotlight of national prominence for the first time in a very long time.

Biggest Surprise: Vols' 8-0 start to the season

While expectations were raised following a better-than-expected seven-win season in Josh Heupel's first year in Knoxville, no one on the planet foresaw Tennessee being undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the nation eight games into the season. A feat made all the more impressive with wins over five nationally ranked opponents — Alabama, LSU, Florida, Kentucky, and Pitt.

Biggest Disappointment: 63-38 loss at South Carolina

Tennessee's 27-13 loss to Georgia was disappointing, to say the least. But there was no bigger letdown than the blowout loss to the Gamecocks. The Vols entered that matchup as a 22.5-point favorite with a very favorable path back into the College Football Playoff conversation with a win. The Volunteers exited Columbia heartbroken, with an inexplicable 25-point loss, in what may qualify as the worst performance ever by a Tennessee defense. Adding insult to injury — or perhaps injury to insult — was Hooker's season-ending injury, which also ended any hope  of competing for a national championship.

Senior Who will be Missed the Most: Hendon Hooker, QB

Heupel aside, no one has done more to help resurrect Tennessee football than Hooker. In just two seasons and 22 starts for the Volunteers, Hooker completed 69 percent of his passes for 6,080 yards with 58 touchdowns against only five interceptions — breaking several school records along the way. The dual-threat signal-caller also performed at a high level with his legs, accounting for 1,046 yards and 10 scores on the ground during his time on Rocky Top. A true leader on and off the field, Hooker has already reached legendary status among Vol fans and will go down in history as one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever put on the orange and white. He will be sorely missed next season.

Player to Watch in 2022: Joe Milton III, QB

The Vols should have several solid options to replace Hooker next season, and there's no guarantee that Milton will win the job. However, it should be Milton's job to lose. And if he does ultimately win the job, he instantly becomes the single biggest factor in Tennessee's offensive success, or lack thereof, next season. There may not be a signal-caller in the entire country with a bigger arm and physical presence than Milton. And if he can make positive strides with his downfield accuracy and decision-making, the sky is the limit for Tennessee's passing game next season. But based on what we already know, that's a big if.

Offseason Storyline: Fixing the defense

There will be plenty of buzz surrounding the quarterback situation this offseason. But based on Josh Heupel's history, the Tennessee offense should be just fine. The bigger concern is a defense that needs plenty of upgrades and improved coaching, particularly when it comes to Tennessee's dismal pass defense. The two biggest questions regarding that side of the football will be — how can Tennessee improve its defense from a talent standpoint by way of the transfer portal? And will changes be made to the defensive staff? If Heupel can address these issues accordingly, it could make all the difference in how the Vols' 2023 season plays out.

— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.