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How sustainable is Josh Heupel’s success?

Or, how many more points could Tennessee possibly score?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 30 Capital One Orange Bowl Photo by Doug Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The official end to Tennessee football’s 2022 season was a sweet one. The Volunteers notched 11 wins with an Orange Bowl victory over the Clemson Tigers, in what clearly qualifies as an upset. Despite missing a Heisman candidate quarterback and their Biletnikoff winning wide receiver, Tennessee went ahead and wrangled the Tigers for a 31-14 victory.

Wins over all of your major rivals? Check.

The most successful season in 21 years? Check.

Confidence in the future? Check.

After a season like this, it’s fair to wonder how repeatable it was. Plenty of programs have “Cinderella” teams who failed to live up to expectations in the ensuing seasons. Others use them as a launching point to greater success. It can be hard to tell which category a program will belong to in the moment.

It’s made more difficult by the fact that head coach Josh Heupel has defied even the loftiest expectations. There were a significant number of UCF and Missouri fans who spoke down on his coaching abilities—sour grapes or not. And it’s fair to say that a lot of Tennessee fans themselves were skeptical of the hire from the beginning. How do we reconcile what we just witnessed with what history has told us about Heupel’s teams?

The system is here to stay

The thing about Heupel’s system is that you’re almost never going to get stifled by a team with substantially inferior talent. The system is built to overwhelm and exacerbate a talent mismatch. All systems try to do that—but the variant of the Art Briles system that Heupel runs is especially prone to doing so. Against other offenses, teams can substitute more easily and address a mismatch when they spot one. Tennessee’s offense provides no such ability. They turn a “Let’s hope our player can hold up this drive” to “We cannot put this guy on their receiver”.

This is also why I don’t really buy the argument that SEC teams will adjust to the system and make it less effective. Yes, there will be adjustments, but there’s no secret trick that every defensive coordinator is going to utilize. The hashmarks are the same, the substitution rules are the same, etc. You aren’t going to magically change the concepts of spacing and pace.

I would also point out that Arkansas runs a version of the same offense with Kendal Briles at the helm. Theirs is a bit less vertical, and part of that is almost certainly because KJ Jefferson is not nearly as good a passer. As a consequence, their offense is not overly impressive (although it is still a strong suit).

If we accept this reality, it means Tennessee has a good amount of wins already baked in to their schedule. Using 2023 as an example, Tennessee has scheduled non-conference games against Virginia, Austin Peay, UTSA, and Connecticut. UTSA is oddly the most challenging of that group, if this past season is any indication. Still, that’s probably three to four wins already accounted for.

So we know there’s already a high floor. We then saw in 2022 what the team could do when it reaches its ceiling. Hendon Hooker was truly a gift, and his ability to understand the system and give the staff more flexibility was incredible. The only time they stumbled was against the consensus #1 defense. Guess what? The system works. It’s not “gimmicks”, it’s a sustainable way of scoring a lot of points very quickly.

Reloading talent

But not every team will have a Hendon Hooker and Jalin Hyatt and Bru McCoy all at the same time. Tennessee’s recruiting has done a great job of providing the team with potential superstar talents—but the talent still needs to develop. And for how “simple” the base system is, it really doesn’t fire on all cylinders until you have a group of veteran offensive skill players. Being in rhythm and meshing with your teammates is still a thing.

There’s going to be a drop off next year. Everyone accepts that. How big of a drop off will depend on the signal caller. If it’s Joe Milton, it’s going to be inconsistent. He might be the most experienced, but he is not the most talented once Nico Iamaleava enters the room. He’s also continued to struggle with the same issues for his entire career.

That being said, the Orange Bowl victory could provide an early look into how the 2023 offense will unfold. I personally thought it was the best Joe Milton has played since he put on a Tennessee uniform almost two years ago. It was the best game of his whole career, in fact. Two of his touchdown passes were impressive strikes in the middle of a defense, and the other was a beautifully thrown deep ball. He was able to connect on some intermediate throws that he’s otherwise missed in previous games. He even got to show off his mobility more than usual.

But the offense also sputtered more than we were used to seeing. Clemson keyed in on the running game and was betting on Milton and the receivers not connecting. For a while, it worked. After Tennessee went up 14-0 early in the 2nd, the Volunteers did not strike again until the very end of the 3rd quarter. Milton took a couple of bad sacks and couldn’t find a rhythm. Eventually, the pace of the offense wore Clemson down, and Tennessee was able to cruise to victory to end the game.

This could be a look into the future. An offense that throws haymakers and knockout punches, but might get pummeled for long stretches of the game. Boom or bust, as they say.

I would bet on 2023 being the “rebuilding” year. That’s no shock. After that, the world of opportunities is endless. Tennessee is recruiting well and has a clearly defined system. I won’t bet on any national championship trophies—but a respectable and competitive program seems like a good goal.