Tennessee’s wild upset meets reigning champion Georgia’s dominant run in epic SEC clash

Tennessee’s wild upset meets reigning champion Georgia’s dominant run in epic SEC clash

Perhaps a default reaction of explanation Tennessee at this point you should be shrugging your shoulders and palms up to the sky. After all the years, all the messed up hires and strategies, all the futile chases, all the egos, who knew this will it happen so soon?

It’s okay not to have a clear answer.

“I don’t think anybody saw this coming, this quick,” said Phillip Fulmer, the former Tennessee coach and athletic director who has had a hand in it throughout the years.

What that I don’t know gesture lacks in depth, it makes up for in precision. Tennessee is No. 1 in the College Football The playoff standings entered Saturday’s epic matchup with the No. 3 seed Georgia in the SEC on CBS Game of the Week (3:30 p.m. ET). The Volunteers achieved that lofty mark for just the second time in a midseason since 1939. Their accomplishments are so thoroughly established that a loss in Athens, Ga., may not matter in those final College Football Playoff rankings.

Just don’t try to explain it.

“It takes four or five years to build a program,” Tennessee AD Danny White said. “That’s still the case. We have a great ranking and we’re having a great season, but you can’t rebuild a program in 18 months.”

Maybe not, but don’t tell anyone outside of White’s office. White hired Josh Heupel after firing Jeremy Pruitt. That was on January 27, 2021. Just over 21 months later, Tennessee is the best team in the country. At least that’s what the CFP Election Commission thinks. Beat Georgia and that claim could remove any doubt.

“The hunger we see [from the fans] it’s manifesting,” White said Alabama After the game, on the field, grown-ups scream, cry. There was an emotion: ‘We are no longer stuck in purgatory. Win or lose, we have a chance.'”

There are twists and turns reversals. This one came fast and smart. That Alabama game on October 15th changed everything. The score suggested the Vols could they score their way to the championship. It has been done before.

Tennessee has the most explosive offense in the country. A unit that triggers playback every 3.58 seconds has an edge-of-our-seat factor. Quarterback Hendon Hooker went from Virginia Tech rejecting a Heisman Trophy contender.

The defense may have proved that it arrived by holding Kentucky to six points last week, Tennessee’s fewest in an SEC game in 14 years. The same defense that ranks in the top 10 against the run also struggles against the pass.

Did we say seat of the pants? Tennessee’s top defensive back is now starting Oklahoma (Key Lawrence). His best linebacker is killing it for Alabama (Henry To’oto’o). Such is life in the transfer portal, but it doesn’t matter. Missing three top secondary players on Saturday, the Vols got after the Wildcats QB Will Lewishigh NFL draft prospect. Lewis was sacked four times and held to 98 yards.

It took a few outsiders to do it all. White is the son of a legendary Lady and Duke AD Kevin White. Heupel rebuilt his resume and career after being fired at Oklahoma, his alma mater, in 2014. These are their first Power Five jobs as coaches and ADs.

So there was, of course, a factor when White ended up hiring Heupel from UCF. Both held the same positions with the Knights from 2018-20. White says he got Heupel’s vision after an intensive 2.5-hour meeting with team leaders following Pruitt’s departure.

“It never crossed my mind to hire him,” White told CBS Sports. “I never even got to that point psychologically. My mind never let me get to the point of bringing him up. At some point during those conversations with the players, we started thinking, ‘Wait a minute, he would be the best option.’ It was a dark moment for me, I knew it would create more disruption for them [UCF] players.”

It kind of clicked, quickly. Heupel had a calming influence. This was a project that required special members. Tim Banks was hired as defensive coordinator for his sixth stop in 15 years. Alex Golesh was Heupel’s offensive coordinator at UCF in 2021. That unit finished No. 2 nationally in total offense.

Heupel may now be the favorite for national coach of the year. Don’t ask how. Heupel succeeded Hooker. The quarterback woke up at 5 a.m. in the offseason at Virginia Tech and sparred with managers to perfect his game. Then COVID-19 hit in 2020 and it affected everyone’s game.

“When I got to Tennessee, I got back into the swing of things,” Hooker told CBS Sports. “I was able to have full access to the film room. I was in the facility eight hours a day watching film. Even if no other players were there, I was in there trying to figure out what was going on.”

In the spring of 2021, Hooker said he and then-roommate Velus Jones will be the last in the facility. A list of their goals was posted on the wall like what they saw before they left the house: getting to the Senior Bowl, the NFL draft, the SEC Championship Game and the national championship.

“Velus got a lot of those goals out of the way,” Hooker said of Jones, now in his rookie season as a defensive back with the Chicago Bears. “I want to do the same.”

Hooker has great help in the spacious reception room, now one of the finest in the country. Previously injured Cedric Tillman he returned last week to join the transfer Bru McCoy and Jalin Hyattthe latter of whom leads the nation in touchdown catches (14).

The reversal trend is not new, it’s just renewed, designed and much more urgent. Consequently Texas A&M hired Jimbo Fisher for better or worse with his then-unique 10-year deal. Mel Tucker, who got his own 10-year contract, made the biggest turnaround in the country last year in the Michigan State. USC is that “it” team in 2022 as Lincoln Riley continues his freshman season. LSU he hopes for his own reversal. If it beats Alabama on Saturday, LSU will control its own destiny in the SEC West.

“There’s a need everywhere to see results,” Kelly said. “Our society is dealing with it. It has no more patience for long-term plans.”

The “phenomenon” appeared at the turn of this century. Advertisements everywhere took notice when Bob Stoops (Oklahoma), Jim Tressel (Ohio State) and Urban Meyer (Florida) each won national championships in their sophomore seasons; it all happened over a period of eight years. Tilts may have “started” that trend 22 years ago.

It is possible to draw a direct line from Oklahoma to Tennessee. Heupel was the quarterback for those 2000 Sooners who went from 7-5 in Stoops’ first season in 1999 to undefeated national champions. Oklahoma was coming off its worst three-year hitting streak in history (1996-98) when Stoops arrived from Florida. Like now at UT, the talent on that OU team was largely unknown.

Soon WR Antwone Savage went from a little-known freshman out of Albany, Georgia to a career year (50 catches). Linebacker Torrance Marshall went from two different JUCOs to Orange Bowl MVP. Oklahoma was Heupel’s third school. He returned from ACL and was recruited from Snow College, a Utah JUCO of then-offensive coordinator Mike Leach.

In 2000, Heupel was the Heisman runner-up and AP Player of the Year.

“There are parallels,” Heupel said. “We’re talking about a program that was kind of fragmented when we first got here. I think the clear vision is for everyone to jump in the boat together and pull as hard as they can. This group continues to grow and get better.”

There is even a parallel between Georgia and Tennessee. Kirby Smart went 8-5 in his first season with the Bulldogs in 2016 before losing in the College Football Playoff a season later. Mark Richt’s continuity over 15 years allowed Smart to start the foundation. Heupel had to dig beneath the culture of losing and the NCAA investigation.

Today, the transfer portal and NIL are the biggest factors. The quick turnovers put pressure on Steve Sarkisian, who has yet to do so in Year 2 at Texas. In Tennessee, NIL is a huge factor – if not now, then soon. Spyre Sports Group is the Knoxville-based collective that signed five-star Tennessee QB Nico Iamaleavu to a multi-million dollar NIL deal.

This was anything but a quick turnaround at Tennessee if you count more than two seasons back. The program wandered in the wild for a while. Even worse than that Auburn’s meddling with the powers that be, Tennessee fans ran the show for a while. Their the meddling cost them more than the AD (John Currie) and the coach (Greg Schiano). It cost Tennessee credibility.

Instability reigned. Before that, it was Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley. Nothing – not a person, not a philosophy, not a future – seemed to be left.

“The answer” was Pruitt, a former 247Sports Recruit of the Year with three national championships on his resume as an assistant. Pruitt lasted three years, went 16-19 and left as the centerpiece of a a big scandal about employment.

White pointed out that the university was proactive in the investigation. The AD (Fulmer) and coach (Pruitt) during much of the alleged wrongdoing have been replaced. The only few Vols on the roster, Pruitt said proudly, were ones “I didn’t bring.”

“I think the volatility is running out, to be honest,” Fulmer said when Heupel arrived. “Zeb, whatever happened with Pruitt didn’t slow us down.”

“Recruiters and the college football world in general understood that this is not something that will destroy our program. Far from it,” White concluded.

The topic is no longer even mentioned in the program.

“The first day I took the job, I was standing up there [and said], ‘This is what you imagine. This is a journey,” Heupel said. “You understand the type of team you want to build.”

Tennessee’s best chance on Saturday hinges on that No. 1 rushing attack (553 yards per game). Heupel’s influences are obvious — Leach and Art Briles. One (Leach) air raid master; the other (Briles) a master of fast tempo.

Tennessee’s wide receiver splits force defenses to make a choice: Either get out on the perimeter to cover receivers or fill the box. Stifle the receivers and Heupel will be patient enough to run the ball out. Load the box and Hooker has the arm talent to throw out quickly or hit over the top.

“It takes you away from the box,” Smart said. It’s not half in, half out. You’re either all in, or you’re all out.”

“They call routes where a defensive back can’t win,” said Hooker’s father, Alan, a former college quarterback. “Some people say it’s a system, it’s a backyard. No, it’s intelligent football. You can’t be a robot. That’s what makes it so fun to watch.”

It doesn’t matter if Iamaleava never turns out to be the next miracle. Tennessee has already sent a message to recruits: You’re either part of this turnaround, or you’re going to get run over.

“You can definitely tell by the body language [of the defense],” Tennessee’s offense on offense Jerome Carvin he said of the Vols’ pace. “The body language speaks volumes. You see the hands on the hips. You see them panting. It’s time to rock and roll. We’re gonna keep rolling. We’re gonna push even faster.”

White does not believe in regular meetings with his coaches. He leaves them alone to train and recruit. If they need anything, the coaches can answer the phone.

But there was a moment after the Alabama game last month when all the problems that were in the old Tennessee disappeared. White and Heupel locked eyes.

“It was like, ‘Wow,'” White recalled. “Winning the game was definitely worth the ‘wow’.”

All that was missing was a shrug of the shoulders and palms to the sky.

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