Josh Heupel is the fifth coach in Knoxville trying to replicate the stability and success Johnny Majors and Phillip Fulmer provided for a combined 31 years. Now, 13 years after the latter coach was fired, Heupel looks to do what his four predecessors couldn’t in the game named after Majors.
Lane Kiffin, Derek Dooley, Butch Jones and Jeremy Pruitt all lost their first matchup with a pwer five opponent— all coming in non conference play. None of those four coaches beat a power five opponent until mid October in their first season.
While it’s tough to blame Dooley or Jones for early season losses to top 10 Oregon teams— and really even Pruitt for his tenure opening loss to West Virginia. However, Jones’ and Tennessee’s 2015 loss to Oklahoma lost Jones good will with the fanbase and was one of the first examples of his poor game management.
Pruitt’s 2019 loss to BYU did almost as much damage to his tenure as the loss to Georgia State the week before. In a game Tennessee controlled against an inferior opponent, poor quarterback play and an inexcusable defensive bust cost the Vols a win.
Then there was Kiffin’s week two loss to UCLA at home. Another contest where quarterback play haunted Tennessee in a winnable home game.
Those are the blunders Josh Heupel and Joe Milton are looking to avoid making Saturday. Pat Narduzzi brings a talented and aggressive Pitt defense to Neyland Stadium and Tennessee’s passing attack faltered in Milton’s debut a week ago.
“We as a passing unit didn’t perform the way we’re capable of and the way we’re going to need to moving forward,” Heupel said following the Bowling Green game. “We can be a whole lot better and we’re going to be.”
Tennessee looks to do that against a reloading Pitt front four. The Panthers had three defensive lineman drafted in April’s NFL Draft, but the belief around the Pitt program is that the defensive line won’t take the step back many might expect.
“Look at what they’ve done historically with the ability to put pressure on the quarterback,” Heupel said of Pitt. “It’s a huge part of their success on the defensive side of the football. It changes the field position in the game. For us, everyone needs to be in sync up front, it’s going to be critical. For the most part, our five guys up front did a really good job. It’s everybody, it’s blocks breaking off, your protection being in sync, your quarterback being able to adjust and get it right. I don’t care if it’s the run game or the pass game, it takes everybody operating together. So, there are some positives, but things that can be a lot better this weekend. It will be a big test based off of what they do.”
Saturday presents a critical opportunity for Josh Heupel. With a fanbase growing more apathetic by the loss, beating a solid Pitt team as an underdog gives Heupel an opportunity to build excitement around a program under the cloud of an NCAA investigation and a decade plus of near irrelevance.
With a loss, Heupel will likely join his four predecessors in not earning his first power five win until October. A loss makes a path to 6-6 and a potential bowl game significantly more difficult and puts extreme pressure on October matchups with South Carolina and Missouri.
But with a win over Pitt and improved quarterback play from Milton— which is almost a given if Tennessee wins— Heupel will have separated himself from the four coaches who failed to recreate UT’s success under Majors and Fulmer.
Heupel will also have shown Tennessee fans first hand the success in developing quarterbacks that had him in position to get a SEC head coaching job.
Those two things will give Vol fans plenty of reason to get firmly behind Heupel’s first team and the program he’s trying to build. The excitement and juice around the program won’t be far behind.