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Is Josh Heupel’s Tennessee team the most impressive turnaround of 2021?

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An objective overview shows he has a great argument.

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel Calvin Mattheis/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

When it comes to coaching hires made after 2020, few coaches exceeded expectations more than Josh Heupel. Tennessee football had just gone 3-7 and lost nearly a third of its roster in quick succession. Most of the writers here had the team at 4-8 or 5-7. But more than a few others said Tennessee could be looking in the face of a 3-9 season. They weren’t wrong—the level of roster turnover, combined with a late coaching change, and a complete flip in scheme, meant this squad could very well go winless outside of their non conference matchups.

Suffice to say, Heupel and company have blown past those expectations. Standing at 7-5 and waiting for their bowl selection means Tennessee was probably one game away from their ceiling. It was an inarguably great job of coaching.

We looked up a list of head coaches hired after the 2020 season, to see how they compared to Heupel. According to the Tennessee football account, he already has the most wins of any first year Power-5 head coach. We wanted to go a little deeper, and see if the turnaround was overall better too. We selected four coaches who improved their team’s win total from the previous year.

First, let’s look at their overall record improvement

Josh Heupel/Tennessee

2020: 3-7 (.333)
2021: 7-5 (.583)

When looking at the competition, here’s some others in consideration.

Gus Malzahn/UCF

2020: 6-4 (.600)
2021: 8-4 (.666)

Bret Bielema/Illinois

2020: 2-6 (.250)
2021: 5-7 (.416)

Shane Beamer/South Carolina

2020: 2-8 (.200)
2021: 6-6 (.500)

Terry Bowden/UL-Monroe

2020: 0-10 (.000)
2021: 4-8 (.333)

From a pure “How many wins added?” metric, Heupel grades out the best. He added four wins to the 2020 total. The only ones who matched that were Shane Beamer and Terry Bowden.

The big caveat, of course, is that last year was almost solely conference games. The number of cupcakes/out-of-conference matchups was much much lower. If we shift the record to solely conference record, how does it look?

Josh Heupel/Tennessee

2020: 3-7 (.300)
2021: 4-4 (.500)

Gus Malzahn/UCF

2020: 5-3 (.635)
2021: 5-3 (.635)

Bret Bielema/Illinois

2020: 2-6 (.250)
2021: 4-5 (.444)

Shane Beamer/South Carolina

2020: 2-8 (.200)
2021: 3-5 (.375)

Terry Bowden/UL-Monroe

2020: 0-7 (.000)
2021: 2-6 (.250)

Not taking into account any non-conference matchups, Heupel’s improvement looks a bit more modest. Just one additional win, though with two less games. Bret Bielema and Terry Bowden added two.

But still, we are once again left with the counterpoint: How tough are the schedules? Adding one win in the SEC, depending on who you play, is probably better than adding two in a G5 conference. By schedule strength, here is how those teams stack up (according to ESPN Football Power Index):

Tennessee: 5th
UCF: 85th
Illinois: 41st
South Carolina: 7th
ULM: 74th

Tennessee and South Carolina are the clear standouts. They both had brutal top-10 schedules, and came out with bowl eligibility.

Finally, what about actual team performance? Records can be misleading, and football games can often be won just off pure luck. While it is no substitute for watching every game, we do have some ratings systems that could help us out.

For this, I am going to use ESPN’s FPI ratings. Listed first are the teams’ ranking after the 2020 season—before their current head coaches arrived. The second number is their ranking in 2021. If there’s a big improvement in the on field play, usually it will be reflected here, even if it wasn’t in the record.

Josh Heupel/Tennessee

Change: 53 —> 26

Gus Malzahn/UCF

Change: 22 —> 63

Bret Bielema/Illinois

Change: 81 —> 66

Shane Beamer/South Carolina

Change: 79 —> 73

Terry Bowden/UL-Monroe

Change: 124 —> 120

It’s not even close. Tennessee’s improvement blows everyone else’s out of the water. So not only does Heupel have the wins to show for it, he’s got the ratings systems backing him up too. If you watched Tennessee on the field this season, none of this is a surprise.

I’d still advise against taking these numbers as gospel, since the 2020 season was so unusual that it is probably skewing some of these ratings. In between game cancellations, altered schedules, COVID quarantine protocols, and more, you’re not getting a truly accurate picture. Yet it doesn’t take a scientist to realize that Tennessee’s improvement was particularly pronounced.

It is interesting to see Heupel’s previous team experience the regression it did. If I would offer an explanation, I’d point out that UCF in 2020 experienced three one score losses. Typically in one score games, the winner doesn’t outplay the loser by much. Hence why they are close games. In many ratings systems, close losses don’t reflect as poorly on the losing team for this very reason (unless it’s a close game against a terrible team).

In 2020 UCF’s case, they actually outgained their opponent in total yardage in two of their losses. So ratings systems didn’t view them as negatively. Compare that to UCF in 2021, who had two total blowout losses and two one score losses where they got outgained. They also suffered some bad injuries this season, which ratings systems can’t usually account for.

Conclusion

Yes, Heupel really did have the most impressive turnaround of the season. The conditions his team had going against them—roster issues, looming NCAA investigations, system change, etc.—did not stop them from assembling a competitive SEC team. He deserves SEC Coach of the Year, in my opinion.

I will say, Bret Bielema isn’t too far behind. Lovie Smith cratered and didn’t leave him much. The Illini had a bad start to their season, but Bielema had them looking competent in their final five game stretch. They also had the second biggest ratings improvement of the teams listed above.

Shane Beamer also deserves some credit. I don’t think his team made the huge strides that Tennessee’s did (which was evident when they played) but he was also working with some truly decimated position groups. South Carolina also benefited from an overall easy non-conference slate. The fact that they are going bowling is still impressive, even if Beamer has a ways to go to prove himself.