In more ways than one, Tennessee entered the modern era of college football this offseason. Gone are Phillip Fulmer and Jeremy Pruitt, in are Danny White and Josh Heupel. The duo comes north from UCF, where they were able to experience continued success in Orlando. They now have a much tougher task ahead.
When you think about what Heupel’s offense looks like, the 2018-2020 Tennessee offense might just be the polar opposite. The old pro-style, I-formation looks complete with ultra-conservative play-calling didn’t get Jeremy Pruitt very far, and his staff’s inability to find or develop a quarterback was absolutely maddening.
Tennessee ranked 102nd, 97th and 110th in total offense over the last three seasons. Meanwhile, Heupel’s offenses ranked 4th, 2nd and 2nd in that same span at UCF. If there’s any concern about this offense translating to SEC play, consider this — Heupel’s offenses at Missouri ranked 13th and 8th nationally, just one year removed from finishing 125th before his arrival as offensive coordinator.
College football has swung its complete focus to one side of the ball, evidenced by none other than Nick Saban, who now also operates heavily with spread, RPO looks. The days of Alabama winning titles with suffocating defense are over, now they just drop 50 points on whoever they want.
“You look at the last three National Championships offensively, I think every team has averaged over 520 yards on offense,” Heupel said at SEC media days. “You look at what we’ve been able to do in our track record as a staff at the previous two stops at UCF and at Missouri, top five in basically every offensive category the last three years. The two years previous to that while we were at Missouri, led the league in total offense. This is a quarterback-friendly offense that’s going to allow us to play and apply pressure to defenses every single Saturday that we step on the football field.”
Again though, Heupel will face a much different situation in Knoxville. He inherits a roster that has been totally gutted by the transfer portal, slashing depth and impact players off of the roster on both sides of the ball. Furthermore, big questions remain at quarterback as the new system continues to be installed. Will we see a big year one jump in offensive numbers? It’s possible, if not likely, but whether or not that translates to wins remains to be seen.
Heupel has done it before, as mentioned above at Missouri. He referenced those exact stats today during his meeting with the media.
“You look at, when we were at Missouri, we set a Power Five record for the fewest amount of zero negative yard plays and then reset the record the following year. When we took over at Missouri, they were 125th in the country in total offense. We ended up leading the league for two straight years in total offense. We’re very balanced in our approach. You look at our numbers, run and pass, we’re extremely balanced.
“So our ability for us, it really starts with the run game. It starts with the five guys up front, your tight ends, if they’re playing. They’re located in the core. And then our running backs have to be great with the football in their hands. That is a position that we’re relatively young at, were hit by the transfer portal, but really like the guys that we have on campus.”
Just looking at last season alone, UCF ranked 27th in the country in rushing yards per game. That’s an impressive number, considering they ranked 4th in passing yards per game. That’s true balance, and that backs up what we’ve heard about this offense to this point. They play fast, they put pressure on defenses, and they take what you give them.
Even with a spread offense and a no-huddle approach, you still have to win at the line of scrimmage at just about every level of football. That will be no different here, which Heupel acknowledged. He also feels like tempo is a key to taking advantage of that area.
“Obviously, we understand that in this league the line of scrimmage is extremely important too, but I think the tempo on the offensive side of the ball gives us the ability to create an advantage in that aspect,” Heupel said.
His track record speaks for itself, and Danny White is hoping he proves himself once again fairly quickly. In a clear rebuilding/transitional season, expectations are low. However, we need to see something that we can sink our teeth into going forward. Heupel needs to put out an exciting brand of football that at least puts points on the scoreboard as he really gets established in Knoxville. He doesn’t necessarily have to win right away, but as Wes Rucker said a couple of weeks back, you better be entertaining.
Heupel made his case today, which frankly was convincing. But this is his toughest challenge to date, and it will be fascinating to see how quickly his stuff works with this roster.