Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel says that spring practice looks “unrecognizable” from where the Vols were a year ago in Knoxville. Reeling from the termination of Jeremy Pruitt and a large chunk of the coaching staff after the NCAA found proof of recruiting violations at the university, Heupel was in the midst of a QB battle and trying to reignite a program that had gone 3-7 in its 2020 season.
Somehow, he did it. Though Tennessee hadn’t been sitting at the bottom of the SEC (Vanderbilt has yet to release their tight hold on that title), they’d been floating around down there. And sure, you look at the Vols’ 2021 record (7-6, 4-4 in conference), and you’re not exactly blown away. But to watch that team last year was to understand that this is only the start of a rebuild that has the chance to finally take Tennessee back to their successes of the late nineties and early aughts.
Is it way too early to be saying this? Absolutely. But I miss college football, so I’m going to say it. It’s a remarkably challenging feat to establish oneself in the best conference in college football amongst long-standing blue bloods who have just about every advantage going their way. But we saw Arkansas do it this year, coming from the depths of the conference to shock the CFB world and make their mark, taking care of Texas A&M and LSU and giving Ole Miss and Alabama a real challenge.
While the Hogs may have reached their maximum production (made incredibly clear by their 37-0 whooping from Georgia), I think that this year is Tennessee’s year to see just how high their ceiling can go. And I think it can go high because of Hendon Hooker.
The self-nicknamed Hendo Cinco, a Virginia Tech transfer, is returning from a banner year in which he threw for nearly 3,000 yards after starting the season from complete scratch along with Heupel. He could have gone to the NFL, but decided (correctly) to return to college football for one last ride.
This year, he’ll be able to refine his skills, understand his opponents, and finish the necessary offensive development that he needs to become one of the best QB’s in the conference. Bar injury, Hooker has the potential to shock the world and complete the program’s turnaround in his two years of eligibility and skyrocket his draft stock (and maybe even Heisman chances) in 2022.
A world in which Tennessee football is a real contender in the SEC is not a world with which many of us are familiar or even comfortable, but I’m ready to place my bets on the Vols shaking it up this season. The future looks bright — they just nabbed a five-star QB recruit in Nico Iamaleava for the class of 2023, and they already have a four-star freshman QB backing up Hooker. Heupel himself told the Knoxville News Sentinel yesterday that the team is “light years” ahead of where they were at this time last year — a good sign, to say the very least.
Their six losses, and even the scores of those losses, don’t accurately reflect the level that the Vols were performing at last year, in my opinion. To watch them during the 2021 season was to experience a fast-paced, aggressive, fearless offense that put rival defenses on their heels. While halftime adjustments from opposing teams often made it so that the Vols didn’t pull out the victory, the potential was very clearly there. They finished the season with a heartbreaker in overtime against a very strong Purdue team in the Music City Bowl, but above all, they showed that they’re able to hang with the big boys again.
A rebuild in an SEC schedule will undoubtedly hit quite a few major snags along the way, as the Vols face Alabama and Florida at home this upcoming season, as well as Georgia and LSU, with new head coach Brian Kelly, in away games. There’s never not going to be a schedule full of huge challenges for Tennessee, but I really believe that they’re going to give us some very interesting games to watch this fall against the conference powerhouses.
Only 164 days left until college football starts again! Not that anyone’s counting.