YEAR IN REVIEW: Tennessee vanquishes Vanderbilt, finishes regular season 7-5 in Heupel’s first year
By: John Dunn
The All Vol Call in Show
Josh Heupel’s first regular season as Tennessee’s head coach is in the books. While the Volunteers await their bowl bid, many will look back over the season and re-evaluate both the players’, and coaches’ performance.
Tennessee got the season started in lackluster fashion against the Bowling Green Falcons. Quarterback Joe Milton seemed to need a lot of polish, but many just blamed it on first-game rust. Nonetheless, the Vols took a 38-6 win over Bowling Green.
The following week, the Volunteers hosted the Pittsburgh Panthers in the Johnny Majors Classic in Knoxville. Milton was again called on to start, but missed a multitude of open passes, giving Hendon Hooker his first opportunity for Tennessee.
Marred by penalties and second quarter defense, Tennessee fell to Pittsburgh by a touchdown, 41-34.
Tennessee hosted the Tennessee Tech Golden Eagles the following week and got some good tune-up work, winning the game 56-0, and set their sights on SEC East foe, Florida.
At the time, the Gators were ranked 10th in the country, and hadn’t been plagued by insurmountable issues yet. Tennessee couldn’t get anything going offensively against Florida, and fell 38-14.
Facing another conference opponent the following week in the Missouri Tigers, the Vols needed to get going, or risk having another rough season.
It was this game that Tennessee began to open eyes across the country. The Vols came out with blistering speed against the Tigers, and scored 28-points in the first quarter, foreshadowing what the rest of their season would look like.
Tennessee went on to decimate Missouri, 62-24, and they weren‘t done.
The South Carolina Gamecocks came to Knoxville the following week, and the Vols were riding a wave of momentum after throttling the Tigers. Again, Tennessee came out blazing, scoring 28-points in the first quarter for a second consecutive week.
The Vols ended up taking a 45-20 victory over the Gamecocks and first-year head coach Shane Beamer to improve to 4-2 on the season.
Then came the gauntlet..
Tennessee was set to take on four-straight top-25 ranked opponents, starting with then-ranked (13)Ole Miss in Knoxville, followed by then-ranked (4)Alabama in Tuscaloos before a criti BYE week, followed with then-ranked (18)Kentucky and (1)Georgia.
Tennessee battled Ole Miss down to the wire, following a string of controversial calls, but came up just short, 31-26.
Tennessee put up a valiant effort against Alabama, trailing by only touchdown at the half, and headed into the fourth quarter. However, the Crimson Tide opened up late in the game, and defeated Tennessee 52-24.
A crucial BYE week allowed Tennessee to get healthy ahead of a rivalry game with the (18)Kentucky Wildcats in Lexington.
The Wildcats were having one of their best seasons in history prior to the matchup. Much like in 2018, when Kentucky came to Knoxville ranked 11th in the country, Tennessee showed why the all-time series with the Cats is so skewed, as they took a 45-42 victory in a thrilling offense display from both teams.
The following week, the top-ranked Bulldogs came to town, bolstering the nation’s top defense. Although Tennessee didn’t take the victory, they did something that no other team was able to do against the Athenian juggernaut; move the ball and score. Georgia took a 41-17 win, but the game showed Tennessee was making progress.
With the heavy-hitters in the rear view, Tennessee was able to focus on cleaning things up, and finishing the season strong, seeking bowl eligibility against the South Alabama Jaguars.
The Vols walked all over the Jags, tallying a 60-14 victory.
With in-state rival Vanderbilt remaining on the schedule, the Vols wanted to make a statement to in-state recruits; “this is our state.”
Tennessee got off to a slow start against the Commodores, but inevitably began to pull away, claiming a 45-21 victory, and finished Josh Heupel’s first regular season with a 7-5 record.
There are moments that will be re-visited for Tennessee all season.
The Vols had 135 penalty yards, and 134 rushing yards against Pittsburgh. The Panthers have went on to have a pretty good season. What could have been if the Vols Would have pulled that one out?
There were clearly TWO big missed calls by the referees in the game against Ole Miss, both of which sway the game. However, the Vols still had a shot to win at the end. What happens if Milton tosses it up, or Tillman comes down with the catch the play before? That’s a top-15 win for Tennessee.
What if Tennessee played Florida later in the season as they began to implode? The Gators fell to two teams that the Vols beat, could Tennessee have taken that win as well?
Although there are many things to look back on that could change the Vols‘ season for the better, there are a lot of positives to focus on as well.
Tennessee has one of the most prolific offenses in the country. Quarterback Hendon Hooker is one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the nation, and is trending to finish the season with the highest passer rating in Tennessee history. The Vols’ defense is second in the country in tackles-for-loss. Tennessee is bowl eligible for the first time in two years. Tennessee ranks in the top-25 in six different major offensive statistical categories, which is a far cry from their ranking of 108th nationally last season.
There are a lot of things that lead Tennessee fans to be excited, and for good reason. For the first time in a long time, Tennessee football feels fun. The culture around the program seems to ooze positivity. For the first time in a long time, the head coach seems to be truly invested in his team.
Although there is plenty of room for growth, there is no question that Tennessee football is trending upward.