11-2 and a victory in the Orange Bowl over Clemson — how many of you had that on the bingo card for Tennessee in 2022? Josh Heupel has quickly transformed this Tennessee program into a winner once again, just 23 months removed from Jeremy Pruitt’s removal.
Heupel’s scheme instantly had what many thought to be a bottom-of-the-SEC roster competitive again. He and his staff took what was in front of them, including a quarterback that they didn’t recruit. Hendon Hooker made Tennessee a threat to beat anyone, running Heupel’s tempo attack to perfection.
In year two, Hooker was the engine that made it all go for Tennessee. He took over for Joe Milton in 2021 after Milton was largely ineffective and inaccurate. As a super senior, Hooker became one of the best passers in the country. His understanding of the attack, his accuracy, toughness and rushing ability — it all clicked.
Tennessee started 8-0 and ascended to the No. 1 ranking in the initial College Football Playoff rankings — all with a roster that was cleaned out by transfers just two years prior. This staff didn’t even have full depth built, they didn’t have their guys in the program. And Tennessee was the No. 1 team in the country, fresh off of wins at LSU and against Alabama.
“One of the great lessons, I said this to the football team after the game tonight, is two years ago there was so much outside noise that wasn’t necessarily positive, and none of those guys paid attention to it,” Heupel said after the Orange Bowl win. “They decided collectively and individually to go accomplish something, and they worked for it.”
Sure, the season didn’t end the way everyone wanted. Tennessee fell to Georgia in Athens, then ran into a suddenly red-hot South Carolina team.
But that’s all part of the story.
Adversity hits. Tennessee hits back harder.
That night in Columbia was ugly, on a few different levels. The Tennessee defense was clueless and helpless. They made Spencer Rattler look like the Heisman contender he once was at Oklahoma. We later find out that some locker room drama might have contributed to that performance.
Snowballing on top of that, down four touchdowns late, Hendon Hooker goes down with an ACL tear, one so obvious that you knew what it was live. Tennessee’s championship hopes were dashed, and their Heisman front-runner was done for his college career.
You can’t draw it up any more painful for Tennessee, and that’s where things got interesting.
The 2016 season flashbacks were right there, and it was fair to wonder which direction things would go. Butch Jones had a stout roster that season capable of making the playoff, but things didn’t work out that way. Instead, the losses started to pile up, and by the end of the year, Tennessee ended up finishing the season with a loss to Vanderbilt.
Next up for this 2022 team fresh off of that dreadful night in Columbia? Vanderbilt — who randomly caught fire and beat Kentucky and Florida to end the year.
How would Heupel’s team respond? A 56-0 blowout victory.
Just one week removed from giving up 63 points, Tim Banks’ unit pitched a shutout. The offense didn’t miss a beat with Joe Milton running the show, and a sense of relief came over the entire Tennessee fanbase.
Tennessee needed that win to secure a New Year’s Six berth, and they got it in the most convincing fashion. To contrast, back in 2016, Tennessee needed a win over Vanderbilt to clinch a berth in the Sugar Bowl. They lost 45-34. In a moment where everything could have crumbled, Heupel was able to steady the ship and keep things moving forward.
That 2016 fell apart, and that night in Nashville signaled the end of the Butch Jones era. In a truly pivotal moment, Heupel muscled things back on track.
Depth tested — Tennessee once again responds in a big way.
Playing in the Orange Bowl meant you’d get a premier matchup, and Tennessee was going to have to play in that game without their star quarterback. The Clemson Tigers clinched their berth in the Orange Bowl with a blowout win over North Carolina in the ACC Championship, giving the Volunteers a stout test in Miami.
Not only was Tennessee turning to Joe Milton — the guy who struggled so badly to start 2021 — they were also turning to depth at receiver. No Jalin Hyatt or Cedric Tillman figured to make things tougher on Milton, who only has a handful of starts under hit belt in five years of college football.
How did he respond? Well he was the Orange Bowl MVP, of course. Tennessee went on to win 31-14, capitalizing on some early Clemson mistakes and putting the Tigers away late. Milton was steady and made just about every throw on Friday night, silencing his doubters and establishing himself as the clear front-runner for the starting gig in 2023. ‘Overthrow Joe’ was a real thing in 2021, but Milton opted to stay in Knoxville and work on his craft while sitting behind his roomate Hendon Hooker. The window was open for Milton to start in 2023, so he went to work. Now he appears to be on track to hit that goal.
Credit Milton, but also credit this staff. Milton is far from a finished product, but the strides that he’s made are evident. We saw it in mop-up duty all year long, but this was against one of the best defenses in college football.
And he did it with a new group of pass-catchers, too. Squirrel White slid into the Jalin Hyatt role and put up a 100 yard game. Ramel Keyton was up and down, but made the big play at the end to seal it. Bru McCoy was a steady chain-mover all night long.
‘Next man up’ was literally the only strategy for Tennessee, and that depth — all of which is returning in 2023 — looked pretty stout. That’s another huge indicator for this coaching staff, and a fantastic sign moving forward.
Now the momentum is moving back in the right direction, which is a big deal for the 2024 recruiting class and maybe even for some transfer portal targets that we’ll see visit over the next couple of weeks.
“Our brand is out in front of everybody,” Heupel said. “I think we’ve beaten three out of the last four national champions during the course of this season. 11-win season, which hasn’t been done since 2001. There’s so many positive things, so much momentum inside of our program that the entire country, our players, our fan base, recruits, can see the trajectory of where Tennessee is and where it’s going. Tonight is a big night.”
‘The best is yet to come’ was Heupel’s message after the game. He said it on the field, on stage with the trophy and again in his press conference. After everything we’ve seen in the last 23 months, you’ve really got no choice but to believe him.