There is still a game to be played to close out the first year for Tennessee and head coach Josh Heupel, but it’s safe to say that year one has already been a rousing success. After a 3-7 year in 2020 and significant turnaround in the football program and athletic department, the Vols managed to hit a regular-season record of 7-5 with a Top 25 win against Kentucky.
Heupel’s first season managed to gain the trust and support of the majority of the fanbase, which is something that has not been done in some years at Tennessee. Now, there is a sense of stability around the program, especially heading into Heupel’s second year at the helm. The Vols are returning star quarterback Hendon Hooker, along with much of the offense in general as the Vols look to improve on what was already a Top 10 offense nationally.
Recently, CBS Sports revealed their grades for all of the first-year head coaches in college football. Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel was given the second-highest grade among all coaches exiting their inaugural seasons.
Heupel was given a grade of an A- for his first year at Tennessee.
“It’s been a long time since hope was felt on Rocky Top, but that’s exactly what Heupel provided in Year 1,” CBS Sports writer Barrett Sallee wrote. “The offense was dynamic with quarterback Hendon Hooker. The Vols played rival Alabama close and a bowl berth is an unexpected reward for a championship-starved fanbase.”
Additionally, ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg also graded Heupel with an A- in his year-end grades.
See Also from RTI: Tennessee’s Strong Recruiting Month Another Good Sign For Josh Heupel
“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.”
According to CBS Sports’ grades, Heupel is only behind South Carolina coach Shane Beamer, who received an A grade after leading the Gamecocks to a record of 6-6. Tennessee handily defeated South Carolina during the regular season, as Heupel’s squad beat Beamer’s squad by a score of 45-20 in Knoxville.
“The Gamecocks destroyed Florida, handled Auburn and made a bowl game in a season that began with Beamer bringing graduate assistant coach Zeb Noland back onto the roster to start at quarterback,” Sallee wrote for CBS Sports about Beamer. “It was a tremendous debut for the first-time head coach.”
The other two first-year SEC coaches, however, did not grade out nearly as well as Heupel and Beamer. Auburn’s Bryan Harsin and Vanderbilt’s Clark Lea both received a D+.
Other notable grades for first-year head coaches around the league include Texas’ Steve Sarkisian with an F and UCF’s Gus Malzahn with a C+. Meanwhile, former Tennessee head coach and current Arkansas State head coach Butch Jones received an F in his first year with the Red Wolves.
Tennessee (7-5) will take on Purdue (8-4) in the Music City Bowl on Dec. 30.