The Tennessee Volunteers were on top of the college football world at the start of 1999. They had just defeated the Florida State Seminoles to win the national championship. Peyton Manning left for the NFL one year earlier.
By Matt Zemek
Only then did the Volunteers max out and produce a perfect season. Yes, they got lucky – remember the Clint Stoerner fumble against Arkansas and a very close shave against Mississippi State in the SEC Championship Game – but most national champions do require some luck at points along the way. Tennessee had a really good team in 1998, and Phil Fulmer showed that his program was so much more than just Peyton Manning. The Vols were rolling, they were tough, they were strong, and they seemed primed to get more chances to win big prizes in college football.
Imagine telling yourself – or being told – back then that the Vols would not win another SEC championship for another 23 years. You probably would have been called crazy, especially in Knoxville. Yet, that’s the reality as the Vols prepare for their 2022 season. The Vols, along with Nebraska and UCLA, carried a very proud and rich college football heritage into the start of the 21st century. Yet, those three programs all share the dubious distinction of not having won a single conference title this century.
Tennessee hasn’t made the SEC Championship Game since 2007. With Georgia being a full-fledged superpower right now under Kirby Smart, it will take some doing for Tennessee to win an elusive SEC East title. No one is expecting the Vols to break through this year, but what UT football needs to achieve in 2022 is very clear: Close the gap. Make the Dawgs respect the Big Orange and what they bring to the table. Create belief that a Tennessee revival is truly underway and ready to embrace bigger challenges in 2023 and beyond. It’s up to the Vols to move their program forward instead of being stuck, as they have been for the past 15 years.
The big source of optimism in Knoxville is that for the first time in quite a while, Tennessee football has a genuinely potent offense which values the passing game and demonstrates the capacity to evolve.
Derek Dooley and Butch Jones did not teach the passing game well. A Tennessee program which used to have David Cutcliffe, the quarterback whisperer, as a coordinator and teacher fell into a prolonged rut in which quarterbacks received third-rate coaching and player development. This is the central virtue of current head coach Josh Heupel. Say whatever else you want about him, but he knows how to play the quarterback position and therefore intimately knows what is required to be great. Heupel won a national championship as a quarterback in January of 2001, two years after Tennessee won it all. He did not dominate at UCF the way predecessor Scott Frost did, but coaching offense is something he can do well. That’s precisely where Tennessee football has been lacking for more than a decade.
In 2021, Vol fans got to see what a Heupel offense looks like, and it’s hard not to be excited about the future.
Tennessee was one of just three SEC programs to score over 500 total points for the entire season. The other two programs: Alabama and Georgia, the two schools which met in Indianapolis for the national championship. That should tell you something about the new-look nature of the Vols, who are in touch with the modern era of aggressive offense after lagging behind the curve far longer than they ever should have.
Reaching the 500-point threshold meant that the Vols averaged just over 39 points per game. This offense was lethal, dynamic, versatile, fast-paced, and yet not soft. The Vols showed an ability to hit the home-run ball and strike quickly, but they also ran the ball between the tackles and used tempo to wear down the opposition. This wasn’t a one-trick pony with limited options. Tennessee could score in different ways from different spots on the field.
There was just one problem with the 2021 Vols: Whatever they did on offense, it was often not enough to win. The Vols did get to a bowl game, but they fell well short of a significant January destination. They were a dangerous team to play, but they didn’t threaten in the SEC East, finishing in the middle of the division standings.
The defense allowed 41 points in a loss to Pittsburgh, 52 to Alabama, and 48 to Purdue in the Music City Bowl. The offense, for all the good things it did last year, managed just 26 points against Ole Miss and 14 against Florida. The Vols were prolific over the course of the full year, but when they sputtered, it cost them. Crucially, in the few close games the Vols played, they couldn’t seal the deal.
Of Tennessee’s 13 games last season, only four were decided by one score (seven points or fewer). Tennessee went 1-3 in those four games: losing by seven to Pitt, five to Ole Miss, and three to Purdue. The Vols defeated Kentucky by three in their best win of the year.
One could reasonably claim that Tennessee’s 2021 season was like Arkansas’ 2020 season under Sam Pittman: The improvement from the previous season was noticeable and unmistakable, but the results didn’t reflect the full measure of growth on the team.
Arkansas delivered results which reflected the program’s improvement in 2021, in Pittman’s second season. Heupel, in what will be his second season in Knoxville, hopes to follow the same trajectory in 2022.
This year, if Tennessee is able to once again average 39 points per game (or come close to doing so), the final record needs to be a lot better than 7-6. Let’s see if the Vols reach their benchmark in scoring average, and can then change the win-loss totals to show to Georgia and everyone else that in 2023, they will be ready to truly challenge the elites for SEC supremacy. It won’t happen this year, but 2022 needs to be the stepping stone toward something special in the future.