It’s safe to say that Josh Heupel understood his assignment in his first year as the head coach of Tennessee.
After a disastrous 3-7 season in 2020, combined with turnover in the athletic department, Heupel came to Knoxville and changed the course of the program. The former UCF coach gained the trust of the team and the fans after leading the Vols to a 7-5 regular-season record and a bowl appearance for only the second time in the last five years.
On Tuesday, ESPN senior writer Adam Rittenberg released his first-year head coach grades from around the league. And there weren’t many coaches who graded out better than Heupel.
ESPN’s grade for Josh Heupel in his first year at Tennessee was a solid A-.
“Tennessee had several coaches pass on the job before turning to Heupel, who came in with a strong record (28-8) but came off a down year at UCF,” Rittenberg said in his post for ESPN. “He also had only two years of SEC coordinator experience and took over only in late January. But Heupel energized Tennessee’s downtrodden offense and produced a team that has Vols fans genuinely excited about the future again. Tennessee had the SEC’s No. 3 scoring offense and No. 4 total offense, winning three conference games by 24 points or more.”
Originally, Heupel was given a hiring grade of just a C, which makes for the highest jump of any graded first-year coach.
“Despite a tough schedule featuring Alabama and Ole Miss in crossovers, Tennessee won three of its final four games,” Rittenberg said. “Quarterback Hendon Hooker blossomed under Heupel and offensive coordinator Alex Golesh, completing 69% of his passes with 26 touchdowns and only three interceptions. Recruiting remains an area to watch, but Heupel has delivered offense and a new sense of excitement to Knoxville, despite taking over under some difficult conditions.”
According to Rittenberg’s grades, Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel tied for the best grade among the SEC candidates. Only South Carolina’s Shane Beamer was in the same boat with a final grade of A-.
Auburn head coach Bryan Harsin graded out with a C while Vanderbilt’s Clark Lea finished with a D+ grade. Other notable grades included a D- for former Tennessee and current Arkansas State head coach Butch Jones and a D grade for Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian. In addition, UCF, the team that had to replace Heupel, had Gus Malzahn grade out with a B- in his first year with the Golden Knights.
Utah State’s Blake Anderson is the coach to have graded out better than Heupel with an A grade in his first year. Anderson took the Aggies from a 1-5 record in 2020 to a 10-3 record in 2021.