A strong year one under Josh Heupel means one thing entering year two — expectations. And that’s a good thing. The groundwork has been put down and several key veterans are back for more, including super-senior quarterback Hendon Hooker.
Considering the state of the SEC East, Tennessee is likely to be a popular pick to move into the No. 2 slot this season behind Georgia. Though there’s still a gap between the Volunteers and the Bulldogs, one popular metric thinks that gap is closing and is expecting big things from Josh Heupel’s program in year two.
Bill Connelly’s S&P+ rankings for 2022 are out, and it ranks Tennessee 9th in the country. The metric uses returning production, recruiting and recent history to spit out a predictive ranking.
Despite a 7-6 record last season, Tennessee finished 10th in the S&P+ rankings last season. The metric clearly is a fan of Heupel’s offense, ranking Tennessee as the seventh best offense in the country to finish 2021. Looking at 2022, Tennessee now ranks third, thanks to the return of Hendon Hooker and Cedric Tillman. The Vols also should return four of five starting offensive linemen from last season, along with two veteran starters at tight end.
Tennessee’s defense, which will clearly be the biggest question mark heading into this season, ranks 42nd in these preliminary rankings. The Volunteers still have clear needs at linebacker and cornerback, and could use more depth at safety and defensive end as well. We’ll see what this staff is able to do in the portal coming out of spring practice.
The next ranked SEC East team is Florida at 18th, and then Kentucky at 21st. Pittsburgh, who Tennessee will play once again this season, ranks 13th overall in the metric despite losing Kenny Pickett. The Panthers did pick up Kedon Slovis from USC, however.
So how does 9th sound to you? It’s probably a touch rich for me, considering the defensive issues that have yet to be addressed. However, the opportunity and path certainly are there for Tennessee in 2022, at least to take a big step forward and move up on the SEC totem pole. The return of Hooker is huge, and if the Vols can get a similar effort out of Tim Banks in year two, a nine win season could easily be a reality. Ten wins could even be on the table.