By: Gage Ellison
Junior Staff Writer
The All Vol Call in Show
The Savior of a dormant giant or merely a placeholder for whoever comes next? To really answer the question, first perspective must be provided about exactly what Heupel inherited with the Vols. Three seasons ago, Jeremy Pruitt left the Tennessee program in a state of turmoil worse than ever before seen in Knoxville. The Vols were coming off a 3-7 finish to the 2020 season with recruiting violations starting to pile up. This led to the worst exodus the Vols roster has seen. 30 players hit the portal, 23 being on scholarship highlighted by the loss of the leading rusher Eric Gray and the leader in sacks and tackles, Henry To'oto'o. Heupel was hired nine days after the firing of Jeremy Pruitt. The fan base gave mostly negative feedback to the hire, but most seemed to fail to realize coaches weren't lining up to interview anyhow. Heupel stepped into a program with one winning season in the last four, and a patchwork roster unable to fill scholarships. To summarize, Heup walked into a true dumpster fire.
The Vols entered year one with super low expectations from media and fans. Expectations in which Heupel absolutely crushed. Year one changed when starting quarterback Joe Milton went down against ACC champion, Pittsburgh. In this home game, Hendon Hooker stepped in and totaled 227 yards and two touchdowns. His highlight reel game wasn't enough however as the Vols fell 41-34 to Kenny Pickett and his team. Tennessee followed that loss in the coming weeks with decimating wins against Missouri and South Carolina. Games that saw the Volunteer offense look unstoppable totaling a combined 107 points. Year one had it's ups and downs, but ultimately saw the Vols finish with a 7-6 record. The promise shown was beyond what anyone imagined with wins against a 10 win Kentucky squad in Lexington and a blowout of in-state rival, Vanderbuilt. Expectations grew by the week throughout the off-season.
Heupel, just one year removed from inheriting dumpster fire, entered year two with hope behind the super senior star Hendon Hooker. Vegas set Tennessee`s win total at 7.5. A total that the Vols cruised well beyond. The schedule was a gauntlet to say the least. Featuring
games against Pittsburgh, LSU, and Georgia on the road. On top of this they still faced Florida, Alabama, and a Kentucky team coming off another 10 win season at home. Heupel led the Vols to the program`s best start since 1998. The Vols rattled off 8 straight before heading into a playoff deciding match up with the defending nation champions in Athens. Georgia showed off it's talent and depth cruising past the Vols, 27-13. Everyone remembers what happened soon after in Columbia as South Carolina embarrassed the Vols 63-38. That wasn't the only major loss. Star QB Hendon Hooker tore his ACL and would miss the remainder of the season. That didn't stop the Vols from handling the ACC Champion, Clemson Tigers, in an Orange Bowl that would cap off the best season for the Vols since 2001. Heupel now had an 11-2 season paired with a NY6 bowl win added to his resume. Expectations grew even higher. Were these
expectations really fair though?
Now over half-way into year three, the Vols set at 5-2 with both losses coming on the road to Florida and Alabama. Fans have taken to twitter to share disappointment with the Vols. The disappointment doesn't really seem fair though. Most hall-of-fame coaches struggled on the road in year three. Dabo Swinney suffered blowout losses to Georgia Tech, NC State, and South Carolina all on the road. Saban went 8-5 at LSU in year three struggling to win on the road. Those coaches seemed to get blown out in road games. Same can be said for Harbaugh and many other notorious coaches. Though Heupel has struggled, his team has competed on the road in year three. None of the coaches listed above entered into a program near the state the Vols found themselves in three short years ago. The roster was bound to show deficiencies with the lack of depth and talent that has accumulated since learning of the uncertainty following the destructive violations left by Pruitt. Heupel hasn't complained. He put his head down and pulled in massive talents such as Nico Iamaleava, Jordan Ross, and Mike Matthews. Hendon Hooker vaulted the Vols past anyone's expectations and far past reality. Yet Heupel has shown promise the program hasn't witnessed in 20+ years. Nobody inside the fan base should question IF Heup can get the Vols back to elite status, they should only question when. The Vols have shown flashes of what is to come in the future. Heupel has shown the ability to win big games and get over humps that lasted 15 years.
Tennessee is no longer the doormat it became for 20 years. Heupel saved the program and its only a matter of time before the Vols are back to elite status. Vol Nation should have trust in the fact that Heupel is the savior this program has longed for far too long. The drought will end, and Heupel will be the guy to deliver Tennessee to the mountain top of glory.