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Vanderbilt Football 2021 Opponent Preview: Tennessee

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Yep. Those guys.

Opponent: Tennessee Volunteers

Date: November 27, 2021

All-time series record: Tennessee leads, 77-33-5

Last meeting: December 12, 2020; Tennessee won, 42-17

Last season: 3-7, 50th in SP+

Head coach: Donnie Tyndall Josh Heupel (first year; fourth year overall, 28-8)

Boy, that escalated quickly.

Tennessee was riding high in early October 2020. The Vols had finished 2019 on a six-game winning streak after starting the season 2-5; then, they opened 2020 with what looked like a tough road win at South Carolina, followed by a 35-12 drubbing of Missouri in Week 2.

And then it fell apart. Expected beatings at the hands of Georgia and Alabama were sandwiched around a 34-7 drubbing by Kentucky at Neyland Stadium, something that most Tennessee fans would agree is something that should never happen. Still time to get things right, sure, but then Tennessee went on the road to Arkansas, built a 13-0 halftime lead... and ended up losing 24-13. They again jumped to an early lead at Auburn two weeks later... and lost, 30-17. The Vols finished 3-7, only beating a hapless Vanderbilt team in the second to last game. They accepted a bid to the Liberty Bowl, only to have to withdraw due to COVID-19 issues within the program.

The drama was just getting started. Word leaked around the end of the season that Tennessee’s football program was under NCAA investigation. Jeremy Pruitt got fired a month later, and then Dan Patrick made Tennessee football into a meme:

“They put money into McDonald’s bags and gave them to the recruits when they came on campus,” Patrick said. “Some of the campus visits were not organized, or they were not above board. But they were handing out cash, I don’t know if it was drive through. So you literally had bag men and they put the cash in McDonald’s bags and handed it to the recruits. My source said they were so in your face with this. They weren’t even trying to hide it, and that’s when my source said, ‘Tennessee got sloppy, Georgia has gotten sloppy’ but there’s been no word on the NCAA looking at Georgia.”

Athletic Director Phil Fulmer also stepped down, and in his place came former UCF AD Danny White, who filled the head coaching vacancy by... hiring UCF’s head coach, Josh Heupel. Heupel looks very familiar, where have I seen him before...

Oh. It’s a new version of our bacon-loving friend to the East.

Anyway, the drama didn’t end with the coaching search — Tennessee subsequently lost a ton of important players to the transfer portal, because of course they did. That last part probably limits the Vols’ upside in 2021. But it’s still a roster dotted with former four- and five-star recruits, because why wouldn’t it be?

Offense

Heupel’s first order of business is finding a quarterback. Former five-star recruit Harrison Bailey saw some action as a true freshman and did just fine after some early jitters; over the final three games of the season, he completed 34-for-45 passes with four touchdowns and no interceptions. But Heupel brought in a couple of transfers to compete for the job: Hendon Hooker, a two-year starter at Virginia Tech who completed 65 percent of his passes in 2020 and presents more of a running threat than Bailey; and Joe Milton, who started at Michigan before losing the job to Cade McNamara. Honestly, Tennessee probably should just stick with Bailey, but Hooker might be a better fit for what Heupel wants to run.

Of course, Heupel will also have to figure out the rest of the skill positions. Tennessee’s top two running backs — Eric Gray and Ty Chandler — both transferred, and top wide receiver Josh Palmer departed for the NFL. The receiver room might be in a bit better shape, with Velus Jones Jr. (22-280-3) returning for a sixth year of college football and Jalin Hyatt (20-276-2) coming off an impressive performance as a true freshman, and Mississippi State transfer JaVonta Payton should help, but it’s hardly an experienced group; four-star freshmen Walker Merrill and Kaemen Marley might have to be called upon early. Tennessee did sign the #1 JUCO running back in the country in Tiyon Evans, but it’s pretty thin after that, and it’s never a good sign when the recruiting services have one of your incoming freshmen at the position listed as a linebacker.

The offensive line wasn’t spared from the attrition, either: former five-star recruit and starting left tackle Wanya Morris transferred, and starting left guard Trey Smith and center Brandon Kennedy went to the NFL. Here, at least, Tennessee can probably book-end the line with former five-stars Darnell Wright (who started nine games at right tackle) and Cade Mays (who is in approximately his seventh year of college), and Cade’s younger brother Cooper got some starting experience last season.

Defense

The defense wasn’t spared from the race to the exits, though unlike the offense, the defensive attrition was concentrated in one area: the linebacking corps. Starting linebackers Henry To’o To’o (Alabama) and Quavaris Crouch (Michigan State) both hit the transfer portal, as did part-time starters Darel Middleton (West Virginia), Deandre Johnson (Miami), and Kivon Bennett (Arkansas State.)

The retooled linebacker group could be a problem, but at least there’s talent here, in part because Tennessee hit up the transfer portal to find Texas transfer Juwan Mitchell, who had 62 stops and 4.5 tackles for loss for the Longhorns in 2020. Also in are top JUCO linebacker Byron Young and Michigan transfer William Mohan, and the Vols can also look to some former blue-chip recruits who are mostly freshmen and sophomores. There aren’t a ton of proven commodities, but at least the unproven guys are talented.

The defensive line should be fine. The Vols allowed just 3.7 yards per carry on the ground and with starter Matthew Butler (3 TFL, 2 sacks) and part-time starters Aubrey Solomon and LaTrell Bumphus all returning for a fifth year, this group shouldn’t miss a beat. Massive (6’4”, 316) sophomore defensive tackle Omari Thomas could be ready to make an impact, too, and the group also adds sixth-year USC transfer Caleb Tremblay. Tennessee loses Bryce Thompson out of the defensive backfield, but otherwise that group returns intact, though it seemed to be lacking in playmakers in 2020.

Special Teams

Punter Paxton Brooks is... fine, ranking fifth in the SEC in punting yards average and also second in punts, a statistic that Tennessee fans would probably prefer that he not repeat. At placekicker, Tennessee swapped out longtime incumbent Brent Cimaglia (who transferred to Georgia Tech) for USC transfer Chase McGrath, who randomly lost the kicking job prior to the 2020 season but performed reasonably well prior to that for the Trojans. There’s not really much to complain about here.

Velus Jones served as Tennessee’s kick returner in 2020 and has a career kick return average of 23.7, with a touchdown as USC’s kick returner in 2019. Tennessee will have to find a new punt returner to replace Eric Gray.

Schedule

  • September 2 vs. Bowling Green 7:00 PM/SEC Network
  • September 11 vs. Pittsburgh 11:00 AM/ESPN
  • September 18 vs. Tennessee Tech 11:00 AM/SEC Network+
  • September 25 at Florida
  • October 2 at Missouri
  • October 9 vs. South Carolina
  • October 16 vs. Ole Miss
  • October 23 at Alabama
  • November 6 at Kentucky
  • November 13 vs. Georgia
  • November 20 vs. South Alabama
  • November 27 vs. Vanderbilt

When I was a kid, I always remembered that ESPN liked to tout Philip Fulmer’s insanely good record in November; with the benefit of age, I have realized that that was mostly a function of November being when Kentucky and Vandy are on the schedule. And in a year when Tennessee may not be operating in full capacity early on in the season, it’s probably good to stick those games (and a breather against South Alabama) late in the season, when the Vols may be fighting for bowl eligibility.

The path of least resistance here is to sweep the four nonconference games, then beat South Carolina and Vanderbilt at home — and then you can savor the trip to the Music City Bowl without worrying about surviving road trips to Missouri and Kentucky. But that gets complicated if Tennessee is still working out the kinks in Week 2, when Pitt comes to town — a team that can absolutely beat them. Lose that, and where does the sixth win come from? That said, I’d probably take the over on six wins because I’d bet on the Vols winning a game they shouldn’t more than losing one of those six.

Recent Series vs. Vanderbilt

It’s better than it used to be, at least. Tennessee won 22 straight against Vanderbilt before a late drive led by Jay Cutler ended the streak in 2005 — and then the Vols promptly won six straight. And then... James Franklin ended the Derek Dooley era with a 41-18 drubbing in November 2012, starting a run of Vanderbilt winning five of seven in the series. Derek Mason won in come-from-behind fashion to secure bowl eligibility in 2016, secured Tennessee’s first-ever winless SEC season in 2017, and dismantled Jeremy Pruitt’s first team with a 38-13 win in Nashville.

In any case, some semblance of normalcy has returned to the rivalry in the last two years and we hate it.

Outlook

I go back and forth on the Heupel hire — initially underwhelmed, then thinking that was exactly the kind of hire Tennessee needed to make, and somewhere in the middle thinking that this is a middling hire that might work out.

Heupel was never going to clear the bar that Scott Frost established at UCF, but at least he didn’t screw up too badly, and even in a rather underwhelming 6-4 season in 2020 the Knights scored a lot of points, ranking 8th nationally in scoring offense (after ranking 5th in 2019 and 6th in 2018.) And even in that disappointing 2020, the three regular-season losses were by a total of 12 points. He seems to be good at developing quarterbacks and producing an innovative offense, which seems like a big deal for a program that hasn’t had an effective quarterback since approximately Josh Dobbs.

Of course, winning in the AAC is a different beast from winning in the SEC. Take a look at the list of AAC coaches that have been hired away by Power 5 schools since 2013, and it’s, uh, not an impressive list based on what we know now: Charlie Strong, Justin Fuente, Tom Herman, Matt Rhule, Willie Taggart, Scott Frost, Chad Morris (who, well, didn’t win that much in the AAC either), Geoff Collins, Mike Norvell. Who off that list would you hire again? Definitely Rhule, maybe Norvell. The jury’s still out on Collins, and Fuente and Frost are still employed... but are you still impressed by winning in the AAC?

With all that said — this year probably won’t tell us much about the Heupel era at Tennessee. The offense has talent, but when you enter the season with question marks at quarterback and on the offensive line, you’re probably not going to field a great offense. The defense should be okay, but probably not good enough to carry an iffy offense. All of that screams 6-6 — thanks mostly to the schedule.