The Josh Heaped era begins tomorrow when Tennessee hosts Bowling Green to Neyland Stadium. Bowling Green isn’t likely to give Tennessee a good game, but the Vols’ manageable schedule includes plenty of even matchups.
Our team at RTI breaks down Tennessee’s upcoming 2021 season and gives their record predictions here.
Be sure to check out Rocky Top Insider for all of your Tennessee football coverage before gameday.
Man, oh man, the time is finally here, isn’t it? Another round of Tennessee football! This past off-season was one of the busiest for Tennessee in recent years. The Vols brought on a new head coach and coaching staff, had an investigation begin, hired a new Director of Athletics, saw the most players enter the transfer portal in Division-I football, and brought in some great talent from the portal as well. Whew, one second, let me catch my breath.
On the offensive side of the ball, Tennessee will use their speed and tempo to their advantage. Heupel is known to have an up-tempo play style that works to take advantage of a defense on its toes. Tennessee does have the wide receivers that it needs to play this way, too. I think Tennessee’s receivers could be a strength of this team. Velus Jones Jr., Jalin Hyatt, Cedric Tillman, and transfer JaVonta Peyton all bring a different and useful skillset to the table. While everyone knows about Heupel’s electric passing attack, one of the biggest misconceptions is that his offense is strictly focused on the air. In reality, Heupel uses the run game exceptionally well to set up the passing game. And, repeatedly, Heupel used the run game when he saw that the opposing defense was either gassed or on their toes. Finally, how will Tennessee’s offensive line hold up after a disappointing year in 2020? Cade Mays and Darnell Wright will lead this unit, along with Jerome Carvin, in what will need to be a strength for the Vols.
Defensively, let’s start inside and work out. The linebackers are a group that I expect to show struggles towards the beginning of the season. However, I believe that this could very well be the most improved group by the season’s end. It could take some time for guys like Jeremy Banks and Juwan Mitchell to gel, but Mitchell, in particular, is a reliable player in the middle of the field. Add in some help from Tyler Baron, a defensive end, and Theo Jackson, Tennessee’s STAR defensive back (nickleback), and they could very well piece it together as the season goes. I believe the defensive backs will be the most consistent of the group, and I like the idea of the 4-2-5 against such a pass-heavy league. I do think that will play in Tennessee’s favor. But it also means that the defensive line is going to have to step up. Redshirt sophomore Elijah Simmons will be next to super senior Matthew Butler and will hopefully be able to pick up from his teammate’s play.
At the end of the day, though, Tennessee has a lot of good stories from the offseason filled with motivation and inspiration. But, those stories don’t help against teams like Georgia, Florida, and Alabama. But those aren’t the teams that Tennessee needs to measure itself against. The biggest thing I’m looking for, from a broad perspective, is Tennessee’s competitiveness against the bottom half of the league. For instance, Tennessee has a great chance to go into week seven with a record of 5-1. That would take wins against Pitt, Missouri, and South Carolina. It’s possible, but can they actually do it? That’s the tier of teams that Tennessee needs to establish dominance against in the first few Heupel years. While the schedule seems favorable on paper, I still think the SEC is one tough football league. Seven wins should squarely be on the table, though.
The offseason is over. It was an offseason that seemed at times like it may never end. Tennessee brought an NCAA investigation upon itself, replaced its head football coach and athletic director and had the most players in the country transfer away from its program. That’s all in the past though and a new era of Tennessee football begins Thursday when Josh Heaped leads his team through the “T” for the first time.
Let’s start with the good for Tennessee and Heupel. The Vols’ 2021 schedule is as easy as any in recent memory. The SEC East is down besides Georgia and none of the middle tier teams— South Carolina, Kentucky or Missouri— seem like they’ll be great. Tennessee’s crossover opponent in the SEC West is a strong but not spectacular Ole Miss team. Then there’s the quarterback spot. Joe Milton is the official successor of Jarrett Guarantano at quarterback and while the Michigan transfer isn’t a sure fire star, he will almost certainly be an improvement over No. 2. Under Heupel, Tennessee’s offense will almost certainly be better than what they were last season.
Still, there’s plenty of bad. I think Tennessee is going to be solid at running back and receiver, but the Vols still have very little returning production. The offensive line has very little depth and is a major question mark. Then there’s the defense that struggled last year and lost some of its most productive players. The linebacker room, even with much better depth this fall compared to the spring, isn’t likely to be a strong unit.
So, how do these Vols match up with their opponents? I see three games— Alabama, Georgia, Florida— that are near guaranteed losses and four games that are almost certainly wins— Bowling Green, Tennessee Tech, South Alabama and Vanderbilt. That leaves five, likely competitive, games that will define whether Heupel’s first season is a failure or a success. That is the positive for Tennessee fans this season, while the Vols may not win a ton of games, they should play much more close games than a year ago. Those games include home matchups with South Carolina, Pittsburgh and Ole Miss and road trips to Kentucky and Missouri. I have a hard time seeing Tennessee’s defense doing enough to limit an explosive Ole Miss passing attack and a road trip to Missouri will be challenging. Pittsburgh is the most important game on Tennessee’s schedule, in my opinion, but really Tennessee needs to split its four games against Pittsburgh, South Carolina, Kentucky and Missouri. I’ll say the Vols get it done but if you’re betting the over/under of 6 on Tennessee, I like the under more than the over.
Well, the season is finally here, after a very long off-season. I think the way things played out over the course of the last seven months has heightened the anticipation for the Bowling Green game. The question coming out of spring practice was all about depth, and also the quarterback situation. The Vols were struggling to find available bodies at the linebacker position in the spring, with the absence of Jeremy Banks and the impending arrival of Juwan Mitchell. This group consisted mainly of Solon Page and Pakk Garland running with the first group. But now with Banks healthy and Mitchell added to the team, along with Aaron Beasley returning, this gives the Vols some much needed help at the position.
As for the quarterbacks, the Vols used Hendon Hooker, Harrison Bailey and Brian Maurer in the spring. It seemed as though this group was cohesive, but still missing some flare. Welcome Joe Milton, who was already living in Knoxville while the other QB’s were going through practice. Milton worked hard since April to learn this offensive scheme, which ended up benefiting him in the fall, as he was declared the starting QB. This season will depend on how many points this offense can score, and also how the depth on defense will hold up, especially if they are on the field for extended periods of time.
I look at the schedule at see seven potential wins. The Georgia, Alabama and Florida games will certainly be tough to win, most likely they are all losses. But, if the Vols can take care of business in the second week against Pittsburgh, then things could end up turning in the Vols favor. That game is pivotal for the season’s success in the win column. Tennessee should take care of Bowling Green, South Alabama, and Tennessee Tech. They should also defeat Vanderbilt, with South Carolina, Missouri and Kentucky being opportunities at success, if the offense is clicking. This team has potential, but also has a lot of unknowns, which will show its face sometime during this season. If they can figure out how to maintain on defense, then it could end up being a successful year in many eyes. If they are gassed and get into shootouts like the 2020 Ole Miss team, then that’s where the losses will pile up.
Bring on the crazy season.