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The Volunteers have been stuck in what could be seen as a never ending nightmare. The last time they made the trip to Atlanta to play for the SEC title was in 2007, under head coach Phillip Fulmer and quarterback Erik Ainge. Since that close 21-14 defeat to LSU, the eventual National Champion that year, the program has been going in reverse.
Many of the fans have become disgusted of the small victories that has been celebrated like titles themselves. Without any context, the average fan viewing the pictures from Tennessee’s “Battle at Bristol” win against Virginia Tech in 2016, would have been convinced the Vols were actually celebrating a championship. They had a magnificent trophy presentation with their “Champions” shirts on…. in week two.
A few weeks later in that same 2016 season, we saw Joshua Dobbs’ heroics as Rocky Top toppled the No. 25 Georgia Bulldogs on a last second Hail Mary. The wild celebrations commenced again and there was even rumblings of “We want Bama!”
It seems like those are the most cursed words in all of college football because once they come to light, the result is always the same.
Following that miracle in Athens, the Volunteers dropped three straight games, highlighted by a 39-point trouncing at the hands of the Crimson Tide. In those three weeks, Tennessee went from a top 10 ranking to out of the rankings completely. Along with that disappointment on the field, came with the same snide remarks of those long-time loyal fans off the field.
As a lifetime Cleveland Browns fan, I really felt like that program was becoming the college version of the “same old Browns.” Every offseason was littered with fans declaring its finally their year, only to see an abysmal and overhyped product between the lines. With all of the misfortune, the Browns have finally climbed out of the pit of misery, so it’s not impossible.
Let’s look at how Tennessee can do the same.
Attack The Transfer Portal Hard
Even though Tennessee hasn’t been the desired destination of blue chip recruits as of late, they still boast a lot of upside. With the evolution of networks and programming, it’s almost a guarantee that every time the Vols take the field, the game will be televised. This is exactly the exposure that players who are transferring out of JUCO or Group of Five programs would love to get.
With a whole new staff on board, the word can get out to many portal prospects that no spots are guaranteed. Having players with college experience is completely undervalued and can pay dividends.
After seeing so many players leave Knoxville via the portal, it would be a nice stance in how head coach Josh Heupel tries to build his program with short term investments. These players could create an improved product on the field quickly, which will help open the eyes of elite level prospects coming out of high school.
Tennessee has to move with urgency in this process because the timeline isn’t on their side. The recruits who are coming out of high school next year weren’t even in elementary school the last time the Vols were viewed as a relevant program. However, by producing on the field, they can easily change the recruit mindset. Few players would pass up the opportunity to play for a good team in front of 100,000 plus fans in Neyland Stadium.
Focus On Winning The SEC East
If Tennessee wants to get back to the mountain top again, they have to really double down on controlling their way to Atlanta. The usual powerhouses of Florida and Georgia have been dominant as of late, and even teams like South Carolina and Missouri have won the division since Tennessee last did it. Not to mention, Kentucky has consistently put together one of the best defenses in the country year after year.
With all that going against them, it is not too tall of a task to compete for the division. Heupel will create a dynamic offense that attacks all areas of the field, allowing athletes to make plays in space. Most notable is his play calling, which stretches the field with one-on-one deep shots.
This wide open offense will create a fun scheme which should make the program more appealing to offensive playmakers. It might be a little bit of a bumpy start but once everyone finds their role in the scheme, they should be putting up a good amount of points. The defensive side of the ball is where it’ll be make or break.
Newly assigned defensive coordinator Tim Banks spent the last five seasons as a co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach for Penn State. Banks has been a primary DC for Illinois and Central Michigan in the past, so this isn’t uncharted territory for him.
One thing to note here is that in College Station, his defenses were always a base 4-3. Now in Knoxville, he will be running a 3-4 so it’ll be interesting to see how he decides to utilize it.
There’s plenty of former four-star and even five-star talent for him to plug-and-play and see what works. The schedule is set up nicely with Bowling Green, Pittsburgh and Tennessee Tech all in the first three weeks. This will help Banks gauge who will be competitive for him heading into “The Swamp” week four against Florida.
Trevon Flowers will be a sure fire starter as he is the leader on the back end. Talented sophomores like linebacker Tyler Baron and defensive lineman Omari Thomas will look to solidify their roles by putting pressure on the quarterback. If Banks can get solid showings from the new transfer in edge rusher Byron Young and unlock the five-star potential of an older transfer in defensive tackle Aubrey Solomon, then they’ll be in good shape.
In terms of competing for that divisional crown, its pretty well accepted that Tennessee won’t be a threat over night. It’s probably too much to ask the Vols to really standup to Georgia in year one of the new regime but having them come to Knoxville is a huge lift. As long as they compete for the full 60 minutes on the defensive side of the ball, it’ll help create a long term vision.
That long term outlook is directly related to the final point which is…
The fans and program officials have to give this time to work. The SEC is the most competitive conference in all of college football and having all the new pieces will take time to gel. Having a full offseason unlike in 2020 is something that can’t be taken for granted.
If Tennessee fans are looking for a blueprint on how their program can be built, they should look to the west with their former one-and-done coach in Lane Kiffin. Year one of Ole Miss saw an absolutely electric offense that always kept them in football games. The defense had many miscues but due to the on field success as a team, the recruiting avenues opened right up and now they’re ascending.
Tennessee should be in the same mindset of creating that high powered offense while allowing the defense to grow. Heupel is such a player’s coach and is always active with them in drills, especially the quarterbacks. He just needs time to create a recruiting footprint off the field and a well-oiled machine on it.