By: Colby Howell
Junior Staff Writer
The All Vol Call in Show
I had a conversation with a good friend of mine not too long ago, and after some relatively fair arguments, I had to stop and ask, “is Josh Heupel really the coach of the future?” I’m sure Vols fans are no stranger to this question, as a wide majority of this fan base is wondering the same thing.
One thing to note is that Heupel was probably the most unexciting and unexpected hire to come out of yet another coaching search at the university of Tennessee, the 5th search in as many as 13 seasons. Not to mention, UTK welcomed a new Athletic Director in Danny White for the 2021 season as well. Regardless of the push from Vol Nation for a big name like Hugh Freeze or for former Vols head coach Lane Kiffin to return home, White hired Josh Heupel away from UCF. This left Vols fans baffled, gobsmacked, if you will.
In Heupel’s 3 year stint at UCF he accomplished some really remarkable feats. But, he was in a much weaker conference (AAC) and the record continued to decline in each new season. So the question remains, is he really the guy to take the Vols to conference-competing, playoff-contending heights that fans and administration expect? There’s no way to predict the future, but I’m not going to sit here and tell you it’s impossible.
Look, Josh Heupel stormed the field at Neyland stadium and released the dogs, a stark contrast from the final season of the Jeremy Pruitt era where all the “dogs” practically tucked their tails every game. I’ll be the first to tell you how impressed I was with the initial direction of the program under Jeremy Pruitt. The players were getting stronger, the confidence seemed evident. But …in the end, was it all a façade? Nothing got better than the 2019 8-5 season. Some would argue that’s a pretty good season and it is in most cases, but there were a lot of red flags nonetheless. We could talk about starting 0-2 with losses to BYU and Georgia State, but that’s a tangent for another day.
Dogs released, right. Heupel has taken a roster that is riddled with transfers and injuries and turned them into a serious contender that nobody overlooked this season. Tennessee got the best out of every opponent in 2021 and that level of competition has been evident and has reignited the passion in its fan base. Heupel turned 2 Star prospect Cedric Tillman into an automatic weapon on the gridiron. He’s put Hendon Hooker in a position to be in Mel Kiper’s Top 5 list of draftable quarterbacks this season, after one season! The offensive line is far from full strength or capacity, yet, Hooker remains elite. It’s kind of remarkable. (#13) Ole Miss was on the ropes, (#4) Alabama was clinging to life in the 3rd quarter, and he put up 45 points against (#18)Kentucky in 13 minutes on the road and won.
In all likelihood, Tennessee will come out with a win against Vanderbilt next Saturday, leaving Heupel with a 7-5 regular season record in his first year, 8-5 with a bowl victory and a direct match of Pruitt’s best season. At the time of this article, the Vols have the #11 scoring offense in the nation and among the top 5 fastest offenses in the nation. Once they get a couple of recruiting cycles in, they hit the transfer portal and pull in some JUCO guys, I think Heupel has a shot to be a real sleeping giant.
I guess, my biggest question is, why not Tennessee? We’ve seen Florida collapse in a way that nobody expected. We saw Clemson fall off the ropes this year in a way nobody expected. Why is it, after a man with so much positivity, zero toxicity, and all the football smarts it takes to hang with the big boys in year one, wouldn’t be the next big thing in college football? Sure, as long as Saban is around, it’s going to be tough. As long as Kirby is around, it’s going to be tough. The dynasties they’ve built in those programs are pretty close to unmatched. But with enough time, enough recruitment, enough development and enough Pal’s fast food, Josh Heupel just might…be that guy. Only time will tell.