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2021 SEC Football Season Preview: Tennessee Volunteers

Tennessee is redoing things again with a new man at the helm.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 05 Georgia at Tennessee

2020 at a Glance

Record: 3-7
SRS: 1.49
SOS: 8.89

2021 Schedule

(All times are Eastern)

9/2: Bowling Green (8 p.m., SEC Network)
9/11: Pittsburgh (Noon, ESPN)
9/18: Tennessee Tech (Noon, ESPN+/SEC Network+)
9/25: at Florida
10/2: at Mizzou
10/9: South Carolina
10/16: Ole Miss
10/23: at Alabama
11/6: at Kentucky
11/13: Georgia
11/20: South Alabama
11/27: Vanderbilt

Overview

We’re starting over again in Knoxville.

The Jeremy Pruitt Era came and went without much substance. Now as the 2021 season looms, Tennessee once again patrols the SEC with someone new at the helm. Josh Heupel is the seventh different head coach for the Vols since Phillip Fulmer retired. He’ll be the fifth new coach to start a season, as Jim Chaney and Brady Hoke of course finished out the 2012 and 2018 campaigns. Turnover has been commonplace at UT, leading to a lot of stop-and-starts and not much in the way of success on the field.

Is there much reason for optimism this time around? Drawing only Georgia in Knoxville amongst their toughest games of the year is quite the fate to land. Trips to Gainesville, Columbia (Mo.), and Tuscaloosa will provide a trio of unenviable tasks to the Vols. And it’s not as if the Vols have succeeded in SEC play of late either. Since going 6-2 and making the 2007 SEC Championship Game, Tennessee has posted a conference record north of .500 just two times.

This all being said, Tennessee is in an interesting spot. They have an experienced offensive line, a lot of years logged at receiver, and a fairly experienced defense with something to prove after a dismal 2020. The quarterback situation is perhaps most fascinating, as Virginia Tech Hokies transfer Hendon Hooker and Michigan Wolverines transfer Joe Milton comprise a four-person group that also features Harrison Bailey and Brian Maurer.

Let’s s dive in and see what’s happening in Knoxville in 2021.

Biggest Questions

Thanks to Terry Lambert of Rocky Top Talk for providing the answers to our questions!

Temperature check: What are the expectation levels for Josh Heupel right now in Knoxville in Year 1?

They’re pretty low, frankly. The fanbase understands where this program is at, particularly after leading the FBS in exits via the transfer portal. Add in a coaching change that brings in a staff that’s going to be dramatically different in scheme, and you have all the ingredients of a rebuilding year.

Tennessee has major questions a quarterback and will be replacing three starters up front. They have very little experience at each skill position offensively, and will be replacing guys like Henry To’o To’o, Bryce Thompson and Quavaris Crouch on defense.

Fans will be happy if Tennessee is fun again. After the offense we’ve been subjected to over the last few years, simply scoring some points consistently would go a long way for Heupel. Beating the teams you’re supposed to beat in year one — the cupcakes and Vanderbilt — is a must. Finding another win or two in the toss-up games and getting to six wins is the ultimate goal.

Do we have a clear view of the quarterback situation right now? With four QBs – including Michigan transfer Joe Milton and VaTech transfer Hendon Hooker – in the running, is there a sense of who’s the frontrunner?

Joe Milton has quite a bit of momentum behind him, it seems. The staff lights up when they talk about his physical ability, now it’s just about getting him up to speed in the offense. Milton joined Tennessee after the spring, so Harrison Bailey and Hendon Hooker definitely had a leg up entering the fall. But it’s hard to ignore the buzz surrounding Milton at this point.

Maybe it doesn’t happen for week one, but it seems like the staff feels like Milton is the most talented option on the depth chart. That’s my best guess after a week of camp.

After giving up over 30 points per game last year and over 400 yards in total defense, does Tennessee improve upon their deficiencies defensively, do they stay around the same, or is a plunge on the horizon?

Defense is going to be a big issue for Tennessee for obvious reasons. They lost their top two pass rushers, top two middle linebackers along with their top cornerback. The staff has done a good job addressing that depth in the transfer portal, but it’s a definite gut punch to see all of that talent follow Jeremy Pruitt out the door. Add in the fact that Tennessee plans on playing warp-speed offense under Heupel and you have all the makings of a defense that will struggle.

Defensive coordinator Tim Banks knows what he’s walking into — he knows the speed of the offense and is well aware that his unit won’t have much time to rest. For this reason, he’s stressed the importance of creating turnovers, which is something UCF did well in 2020. Still, depth is an issue across the board.

I fully expect Tennessee to play in a lot of 50-40 type games this fall, kind of similar to what you saw from Ole Miss last season.

Projection

Christopher Novak: The Vols have an uphill battle this year with three tough ones on the road (Florida, Mizzou, Alabama). They do draw Georgia at home, although I think the Dawgs are obviously in a better spot than UT is. That being said, I think my most optimistic view for this season is 7-5, but I think I’ll go with 6-6 with wins over Bowling Green, Tennessee Tech, and South Alabama in nonconference, and wins over SC, UK, Vandy in conference.

Terry Lambert: There’s real optimism for the offense, but the lack of experience clouds my personal expectations. I think the defense might be really bad, too. I see four wins on the schedule as things stand now, with games like South Carolina, Pitt, Missouri and Kentucky waiting to define Tennessee’s season.

My best guess? The Volunteers win five games, but they’ll look more competitive than they did in 2020, which admittedly isn’t saying a whole lot. Hopefully they’ll at least be interesting.