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Season Preview: Tennessee

By Matt Smith
SouthernPigskin.com
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Matt Smith previews the 2022 Tennessee Volunteers

2022 SEC Season Preview: Tennessee

TENNESSEE VOLUNTEERS

Head Coach: Josh Heupel – second season at Tennessee; fifth season overall (35-14 overall, 4-4 SEC)

Offensive Coordinator: Alex Golesh (second season)

Defensive Coordinator: Tim Banks (second season)

2021 Recap: 7-6 (3-5 SEC); lost to Purdue in Music City Bowl

I said last summer that Heupel’s primary goal for 2021 was to deliver a fun product. He didn’t have to win a ton, as anything in excess of five wins would be icing on the cake if the Volunteers were at least entertaining. Heupel delivered, as the Vols averaged just under 40 points per game and finished 7-5 in the regular season, with four losses coming to New Year’s Six Bowl teams. The defense was leaky as expected, but Heupel showed that his offense at UCF was ready for primetime in the SEC. The season ended with a wild, controversial loss to Purdue, but like almost every other Tennessee game in 2021, it kept the fans on the edge of their seats, a far cry from recent seasons in Knoxville.

2022 Schedule

Sept. 1 – BALL STATE (8 p.m. ET, SEC Network)

Sept. 10 – at Pittsburgh (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC)

Sept. 17 – AKRON (Noon ET)

Sept. 24 – FLORIDA

Oct. 8 – at LSU

Oct. 15 – ALABAMA

Oct. 22 – TENNESSEE-MARTIN

Oct. 29 – KENTUCKY

Nov. 5 – at Georgia

Nov. 12 – MISSOURI

Nov. 19 – at South Carolina

Nov. 26 – at Vanderbilt

Under Center

If you want to criticize Heupel for his coaching performance in 2021, you have to start with his decision to start Michigan transfer Joe Milton at quarterback in the season’s first two games. Milton was painfully inaccurate on deep throws, likely costing the Vols a win against Pittsburgh after a clunky season-opening win over Bowling Green. Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker took over in mid-September and had a stellar year, throwing for nearly 3,000 yards with just three interceptions on 383 throws.

Milton didn’t even arrive on campus until last summer, while Hooker went through spring practice. What happened in preseason camp to earn Milton the starting role will remain a mystery. Regardless, it’s Hooker’s team now, and the Vols have stability at the quarterback position for the first time in five years. Tennessee probably won’t win enough for Hooker to be in the Heisman Trophy conversation, but his numbers could be comparable to that of those going to New York in December.

In The Trenches

Tennessee’s offensive line is in much better shape than it was a year ago in terms of general experience and familiarity with Heupel’s offense. Only right tackle Cade Mays departs among starters. It’s not a star-studded group, but it’s a solid one that understands its role. This isn’t a screen-heavy offense with a bunch of quick passes. Heupel will take a lot of deep shots, and the quarterback needs time. The 44 sacks allowed a year ago, most in the SEC, were way too many, even adjusting for play counts.

Tennessee didn’t ask for much of out its defense a year ago. With expectations raised from just a bowl game to a Florida or New Year’s Six bowl game, the defense needs to produce. The blueprint is Ole Miss of a year ago, which, after a rocky 2020, became an average to above-average defense in 2021 to help the Rebels surge to a 10-2 season. It starts with pressure, of course, and that will mostly come from ends Byron Young and Tyler Baron, and aggressive linebacker Jeremy Banks. Tackle is somewhat of a concern after the loss of Matthew Butler.

On The Edge

Cedric Tillman could have turned pro after a 1,000-yard junior season, but Tennessee’s top receiver is back in Knoxville, leading a unit that will again lean heavily on him and his big-play ability. Jalin Hyatt and JaVonta Payton, who finished third in receptions and yards respectively in 2021, will vie for the No. 2 role. Of three true freshmen, 5’10” Marquarius “Squirrel” White might be the one to see the most playing time.

The Volunteers had lousy numbers against the pass last season, but they had to face Bryce Young, Kenny Pickett and Matt Corral. Cornerback Alontae Taylor and nickelback Theo Jackson are significant losses from this group. Big-play prevention has to get better. Tennessee ranked last in the SEC in passes allowed of 30 yards or longer. They’ll lean on senior safeties Jaylen McCullough and Trevon Flowers to make that happen.

Ranking The Units

1.   Quarterbacks

2.   Receivers

3.   Linebackers

4.   Defensive Backs

5.  Offensive Line

6.   Running Backs

7.   Defensive Line

Schedule Analysis

Tennessee hasn’t played a true non-conference road game since 2014, but it will do so this year in Week 2 at Pittsburgh, which won a shootout against the Vols in Knoxville last season. Akron replaced Army in a smart but somewhat cowardly decision. LSU returns to the schedule this year, replacing Ole Miss. Obviously playing Alabama starts the Vols behind the eight-ball a bit in the division race, but getting both Florida and Kentucky in Knoxville could vault Tennessee into the No. 2 slot in the division and potentially have them going to Georgia in November with a shot at the SEC East title. The off-week is early (Oct. 1), but having Tennessee-Martin in late October helps break up a brutal stretch of games between mid-October and early November.

Season Prediction

I said a year ago that Tennessee should strive to be 2020 Ole Miss – a fun team that finds itself in a lot of shootouts. That’s what it did. Now it’s time to strive to be 2021 Ole Miss – an offense that leans on a top quarterback to carry the load while the defense makes steady progress despite a talent deficit. They key to a breakthrough season will be four swing games against Pittsburgh, Florida, LSU and Kentucky. The Vols could be favored in all four of them, but they just need to go 3-1.

I am calling for Tennessee to do just that. Knocking off Alabama or Georgia is still at least another year away, and a bad loss to Florida will create a sour mood on Rocky Top once again, but in totality, this will be a really good season for the Volunteers, as they avenge last year’s loss to Pittsburgh, defeat LSU for the first time since 2005, and take advantage of carnage in the SEC West to steal the league’s Sugar Bowl berth and have a season-ending party in New Orleans a long time in the making.

Record: 9-3 (5-3 SEC)

CFP Ranking: 12

Bowl: Sugar Bowl vs. Baylor

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.