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What is Josh Heupel’s blueprint for success at Tennessee?

Here’s how the new head coach can succeed at Tennessee, and why he deserves a chance.

NCAA Football: Central Florida at Houston Maria Lysaker-USA TODAY Sports

Suffice to say, not many Tennessee football fans anticipated Josh Heupel as the “big hire”.

Weeks after the firing of Jeremy Pruitt and Phil Fulmer’s “retirement”, it looked like Tennessee was going to pull a rabbit out of a hat, so to speak. No one could tell you exactly where Tennessee was leaning with the search, and athletic director Danny White’s famed ability to hire coaches brought a certain mystique to the process. Were they going to snatch up another school’s head coach? Were they going to make a splash with one of the up-and-coming candidates of the industry? Heck, maybe they were going to grab a well respected coordinator or former Volunteer. No riots or rock painting battles this time!

Then, UCF head coach Josh Heupel was announced as the hire. Oh...the same guy White hired while at UCF. All that speculation and dreaming for a coach that should’ve been pencilled in as soon as White came along.

Not exactly a jolt of energy there, is it?

I think I can speak for most Tennessee fans in saying that Heupel doesn’t excite the fanbase. Whether that’s his fault or the fault of a fanbase known for speculation, the point is that plenty of Vol faithful aren’t thrilled for the Heupel era to begin. Some have reserved themselves to the idea that he’s going to be gone in three years, just like the man before him. There’s even some speculation that he’s just the lame duck hire to get the program through incoming sanctions.

Before writing off Heupel, I want to make an earnest attempt to show you why he deserves a chance. I’m not thrilled with the hire, but I’m also not going to predict colossal failure. Heupel has some intriguing potential and a recipe for success, if he can navigate a program in a lot of turmoil.

A note about coaching hires

First, I just want to reiterate what I had mentioned in the “Build-A-Coach” article: Anyone who tells you they have a foolproof way of determining which coaches will succeed, is likely lying to you. That’s just not how coaching hires work. There are plenty of examples of supposedly “obvious” hires who flamed out. There are also plenty of examples of “questionable” hires who surpassed all expectations. A couple years ago, we were all laughing at how Herm Edwards got hired at Arizona State, and how bad the opening press conference was. This stuff is not nearly as predictable as pundits would like you to think. There’s still value in breaking down a hire and what a coach brings, but I would caution against a strong conclusion one way or the other.

(Side note: Heupel fits 3 of the 4 factors mentioned in the aforementioned article. Obviously he does not meet the biggest one, but he’s not exactly chopped liver.)

That reality is also why some of the common arguments on why Heupel is destined to fail don’t stand up to scrutiny. They basically all have a counter.

Here’s one: He got worse year-after-year at UCF, therefore he is going to continue a negative trend at Tennessee. Seems obvious enough. But take a look at Jimbo Fisher, who was on a four-year negative trend at FSU after the national championship. His teams objectively got worse each year. It lead to the disastrous 2017 season where they barely made a bowl. Despite this decline, it has seemingly not affected his progress at Texas A&M. If you want a slightly different situation, look at Mack Brown and how his Texas tenure ended vs. how his North Carolina tenure has begun.

NCAA Football: Central Florida at South Florida Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

That’s not to say Heupel is going to turn out like either of those coaches. Especially since both of those coaches have national titles in their coaching accolades. But those two are the most recent examples of why trends don’t always provide an accurate depiction of the coach’s quality. It works the other way too: Plenty of coaches continue to build on each year of success, and then they can’t do it at another location.

There are some other arguments here and there. Another common one is that, since Heupel wasn’t especially well liked by his players, he’s destined to destroy the Tennessee locker room.

I would just mention that most coaches who leave their teams will not get rave reviews from players—especially if they do it unexpectedly. The only recent instances which I can remember an amicable split between a coach and his players, was (ironically) Scott Frost and Mike Norvell. That was likely because both coaches did it in the midst of their seasons and elected to stay with the team a little while longer. Most of the other time, there’s going to be hard feelings with at least a portion of the team.

None of this is a guarantee for success. This section isn’t dedicated to arguing why Heupel is going to succeed. What I am pointing out is that if you think you found the equation to determine a good hire versus a bad hire, you probably haven’t.

So what’s the actual argument FOR him?

I think there’s a real reason to be encouraged by the potential on offense.

I was able to go back and look at where Huepel’s offenses ended up on advanced rating systems for college football. My personal preference is to use Bill Connelly’s metric, the SP+ system. I compiled some numbers on Heupel’s coaching stops, as both an offensive coordinator and head coach. All the way back to his first playcalling gig at Oklahoma in 2011.

The results: if not drastic improvement, encouraging consistency.

To understand the next section, I’ve bolded the first number in the SP+ progression. That number is the SP+ Offense ranking for the team the year before Heupel arrived. Every number from there on out is the result of Heupel’s playcalling.

Oklahoma (Offensive Coordinator, 2011-2014)

SP+ Progression: 17 —> 7 —> 2 —> 30 —> 16

At Oklahoma, a mixed bag. Oklahoma already had a very good offense. Heupel was tasked with a co-offensive coordinator role along with Jay Norvell. There was some success, but the end of the Bob Stoops era brings a cloudy perspective. Heupel was ultimately fired, even after calling plays for an offense that finished 16th in the SP+ ratings system. That very same year, Oklahoma’s defense finished 35th. Heupel was then replaced by Lincoln Riley. There will be no argument on this website on who is a better coach.

The point is, Heupel’s firing wasn’t the result of a catastrophic failure. He did an okay job, but the guy who replaced him turned out to be an elite offensive mind. There was also a decent amount of gripes with Heupel’s situational playcalling, and Heupel actually admitted that the Oklahoma firing prompted him to change his coaching style and scheme. It seems like the move worked out for everybody in the long term.

Oklahoma v Oklahoma State Photo by Jackson Laizure/Getty Images

Utah State (Offensive Coordinator, 2015)

SP+ Progression: 90 —> 100

Right after that, we have a bit of an oddity. Heupel took the offensive coordinator job at Utah State for one year. The previous season they ranked 90th in SP+. The year Huepel coached, they ranked 100th. I truthfully cannot find all that much information about this Utah State team, and if there were any complicating factors. Nonetheless, Heupel left after a single year.

Missouri (Offensive Coordinator, 2016-2017)

SP+ Progression: 123 —> 54 —> 24

Next up is arguably the most encouraging sign for Heupel as Tennessee’s head coach. Heupel took the offensive coordinator job at Missouri under Barry Odom, one year after Missouri finished a miserable 123rd in SP+ offense. That would radically change in just two seasons.

Despite being at one of the tougher locations in the SEC, Heupel was able to turn quarterback Drew Lock into an eventual NFL draft pick, and lead him to breaking the SEC single-season passing touchdowns record. There was also a 1,000-yard rusher (Ish Witter), and 1,000-yard receiver (J’Mon Moore) in that 2017 season.

For reference, that has not happened in Knoxville since the 2007 Tennessee Volunteers with Arian Foster and Lucas Taylor. It has been a very long time since Tennessee has seen that type of balanced offensive attack.

The SP+ numbers for Heupel at this stop are very good as well. The season after Heupel arrived, he got the Tigers to 54th in the SP+ system (a huge jump). The very next year, he broke through with a top-25 offense. That’s an incredible turnaround in such a short time.

His time at Missouri also presents a somewhat encouraging progression of his offense. Heupel’s unit by the end of his Missouri tenure was noticeably different from his Oklahoma iteration. He added more wrinkles to his playbook akin to the offenses that Baylor ran back in the Art Briles era. I’m not sure it will work quite as well at Tennessee, but the mere fact that Heupel grew as a coach should give fans hope that he can learn quickly.

UCF (Head Coach, 2018-2020)

SP+ Progression: 6 —> 11 —> 14 —> ~12

Note: The most recent season’s SP+ numbers are blocked by a paywall. The final number I listed above is the F+ Rating, which is a combination of FEI and SP+. So it’s not totally accurate but it’s the best I could do.

Similar story here to the Oklahoma trend. Heupel had to try and follow up the program’s beloved head coach that brought them an undefeated season. To his credit, he did manage to get pretty close to it in his first year.

Offensively, Heupel maintained near the level UCF fans enjoyed under Scott Frost. He was gifted a loaded roster for the first couple years, of course. In the third year, which was mostly players he recruited, the offense one again graded out well enough to be top-20, even if it wasn’t at the amazing clip it once was before his promotion.

More encouraging than any particular stat was the progression of quarterback Dillon Gabriel. He managed to take over in McKenzie Milton’s absence, and far exceed what was expected of him as a true freshman. He then managed an even better sophomore season, despite all the troubles of a pandemic. If nothing else, fans can expect a much better offense in Knoxville than what they’ve witnessed the past few years.

How Heupel can succeed at Tennessee

I think that’s the crux of Heupel’s chances at Tennessee. Given the state of the program, he can survive more than three seasons if he just shows a halfway enjoyable product on the field. The W/L record won’t be pretty, but given the exodus of experience and potential for NCAA sanctions, I’m not sure that fans can expect too much more. If Heupel can bring improvement like he did to the Missouri offense, he’ll at least make the losing look better.

Unfortunately that’s where this program is at right now. Firing Pruitt after a bad season would be one thing. Firing him after a controversy involving cheating means that there’s potentially serious consequences looming over the program right now. It’s going to be hard for any coach to succeed out of the gate. Heupel is going to need to weather the storm and try to make the improvements he can in the first couple of years. After that, Tennessee is probably in the clear when it comes to specific punishments and repercussions.

Will Heupel be here longer than 4 years? I hope I’ve showed you why that’s an extremely hard question to answer. What I can say is this: A clear path exists for him to succeed, given his past track record. Any long term future in Knoxville will be fueled by his offenses, and his ability to put a product on the field that doesn’t look like it came straight out of the 1980s.