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Heupel talks Georgia loss, how to close the gap

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NCAA Football: Georgia at Tennessee Bryan Lynn-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee ran into a buzzsaw on Saturday afternoon at Neyland Stadium. It was a fun start for the Volunteers against No. 1 Georgia, as Josh Heupel maintained his ridiculous first quarter numbers. Midway through the second quarter, however, the talent of Georgia became too much to overcome.

Heupel’s offense was pretty much smothered from there. Hendon Hooker played his worst game of the season, which was likely a direct result of the pressure that the Bulldogs were able to generate. Tennessee failed to get anything going on the ground either, which didn’t help Hooker.

It was a familiar result for Georgia this season — 17 points is actually the most that the Bulldogs have surrendered all year. They are the clear-cut top team in the nation, steamrolling their way to the College Football Playoff.

For Tennessee, it was a reminder of the amount of work that’s left to be done.

“Loved the way our kids prepared, loved the way they competed,” Heupel said after the loss. “Don’t question any of that. Against a good football team like that, you’ve got to make the plays or make some plays that give you a chance to play it down to the end. You lose the turnover battle 2-0. Can’t do that. The red zone for us, offensively, not good enough. Change those two things and you have a chance to play it down to the end. Our kids know who and what they are and what we’re building here. We’ll continue to fight.”

Saturday felt similar to the Alabama game. Tennessee came out ready to compete and jumped out to an early lead, but eventually, the difference in depth would show. The Volunteers needed some breaks to go their way, and none did. As Heupel said, losing the turnover battle 2-0 against a team like that is not a recipe for success.

The second half got ugly, despite Tennessee’s best effort to crawl back into the game in the early third quarter. Georgia’s redzone defense stood tall, and their physicality on offense took over down the stretch.

Just like that fourth quarter in Tuscaloosa, it was more than obvious that Tennessee just didn’t have the roster to compete for four quarters. And in year one — that’s okay. Josh Heupel has overachieved in a year that saw 30 players leave in the transfer portal. Odds are, he’s going to win seven games this season, which is something every Tennessee fan would have taken back in August.

The key will be chipping away at that gap, little by little on the recruiting trail and in the transfer portal.

“We’ve got to continue to compete, continue to grow,” Heupel said. “I’m not scared to walk on the football field against anybody, neither are our coaches. We’re going to continue to recruit, continue to grow the right culture inside the building and we’ll be in more of these games. And we’ll end up on the right side of it as we grow.”

Tennessee finishes with South Alabama and Vanderbilt. They’ll need to win one of those to secure bowl eligibility, and will be heavy favorites to win both. Heupel has a shot to really build some momentum heading into a huge offseason, one that should finally mark a return to normal operating procedure with all COVID restrictions lifted. Heupel’s product now speaks for itself on the field, which should make recruiting a little easier for him going forward.

The Vols have quickly escaped the basement of the SEC. They’re somewhere in that middle tier now — can Heupel take them to the next level? That’s the obvious challenge facing him over the next handful of years.