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Tennessee Volunteers Football: Setting realistic benchmarks for the 2021 season

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What would “success” look like for Tennessee in the 2021 season?

NCAA Football: SEC Media Days Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

The 2021 Tennessee Volunteers football season is here. An offseason that started with Jeremy Pruitt as head coach, will end with Josh Heupel and a new look team running through the Power T. Never a dull moment in Knoxville, that’s for sure.

It’s a good idea to put some “benchmarks” in place before the games get underway, to help us analyze the upcoming season. We have already put down our predictions for this year, and none of us are willing to go further than 6-6. With that in mind, it’s obvious how Tennessee’s goals for this season might be more...modest.

We’ve given a few of those goals below. These stated goals will be reexamined at the end of the year. Tennessee does not need to meet all of these to have a successful season—but they will need to meet some of them to give indications of progress.

Offense

A consistent starting quarterback with limited turnovers

The instability of Tennessee’s quarterback room must end. The previous staff seemed to play musical chairs with the quarterbacks, never sticking to one option long enough to gain confidence in any of them. No matter how many times they started (and subsequently) pulled Jarrett Guarantano, it never brought them the quarterback they wanted.

Michigan transfer Joe Milton has been named the starter against Bowling Green. He needs to be given a fair shot for more than a few drives. If he is clearly not the answer after a couple of games, go with one of the guys behind him, and stick with that guy. Constantly rotating players in and out does nothing for you.

Beyond that, a quarterback who limits bad decisions will be a refreshing twist. Heupel’s system doesn’t require the passer to think as much, and the hope is that this will limit turnovers by the position. If that means reigning in some of the explosive plays, so be it. This defense cannot be on the field any more snaps than it has to be. That’s the reality of an offense that scores quickly.

Improved pass blocking

Simple enough. Tennessee will be passing a lot more under Josh Heupel than they ever did under Jeremy Pruitt. If they want to see the fruits of that strategy, they need to keep Joe Milton upright. A Sack Rate of 111th, and a Passing Downs Sack Rate of 107th (both unceremoniously achieved in 2020) cannot happen again. Not only should the offensive scheme be able to mitigate this issue, but the raw talent of the offensive line should shine through. Tennessee is still loaded up front, even with offseason departures. Anything less than an above average offensive line would be a huge disappointment.

Top-50 offense

Some fans might be shocked by a lowball number. This is Heupel after all...a guy who produced top-25 offenses at Missouri and UCF. Offense is his calling card. Why put top-50 as a benchmark?

Simply because, these system installs take time. Tennessee is going from one of the slowest paces in college football, to one of the fastest. There will be bumps and hiccups along the way. When Heupel first arrived at Missouri, their offense had ranked 123rd nationally (according to SP+ rankings). In one year he was able to get them to 54th. After another year, he produced the 24th ranked offense.

Tennessee’s offense last year (according to FEI ratings) came in at 90th. So a similar jump in Knoxville can be the goal.

Defense

Get more pressure

Despite improved recruiting at the defensive end/outside linebacker positions, Tennessee never seemed to find the formula for pressuring the quarterback once Darrell Taylor left for the NFL draft. To top things off, their top pass rusher Deandre Johnson hit the transfer portal and ended up at Miami. The Volunteers still have talent in the room—but it needs to translate to the field.

In 2020, they finished 74th in Sack Rate and 95th in Standard Downs Sack Rate. They were a bit better in Passing Downs Sack Rate—coming in at 39th. Yet even that number can qualify as a disappointment, given the players they had at their disposal. The hope is that Tennessee, at the very least, can scheme up more pressure on the quarterback. The Volunteers need guys to step up at the position as well.

See more young talent

Speaking of that young talent...we need to see more of it. The past season was dominated by veterans on the defensive side of the ball. Which is fine for 2021, but it also makes you wonder if Tennessee really got any difference makers in their recruiting classes.

A quick look at the defensive depth chart reveals an interesting stat: Of the 23 players listed, 16 of them are redshirt juniors or older. Only two starters are redshirt sophomores or younger. One of those two (defensive end Tyler Baron) is actually not a clear cut starter either.

Again, that might actually work in Tennessee’s favor for the 2021 season. For the future? We need to see younger guys work their way into the rotation.

Top-50 defense

Tennessee’s defense ranked 66th in FEI ratings last year. Arguably, it was the least disappointing part of the team, considering they suffered from an offense who couldn’t consistently score nor keep them off the field.

Still, the final results need to be improved this season. It might look different than what a lot of fans expect. Fans are used to good defenses stonewalling opposing teams and keeping them off the scoreboard. But in the modern game, with an offense like Heupel’s, the defense has different tasks. Their goal is to try and give the offense another possession by causing turnovers, while playing very aggressively to try and get the opposing offenses behind the chains.

It means you might see a lot more successful explosive plays against Tennessee. But that’s part of the trade-off. If you keep your defense on the field for a long time, and your offense comes back out and scores in 50 seconds, you are leaving the defense out to dry. They don’t even have time to catch their breath.