The Josh Heupel era got off to a good — though unspectacular — start on Thursday night with the Tennessee Vols’ 38-6 win over Bowling Green.
Tennessee’s offense wasn’t quite as explosive as we expected it to be, but the Vols did what they needed to do against an inferior opponent — they won by over 30 points and didn’t make fans sweat.
Moving forward, it won’t be quite as easy for Heupel and the Vols.
Tennessee gets a major test in week two with a home matchup against the Pittsburgh Panthers.
Pittsburgh is coming off a 51-7 win against UMass on Saturday (UMass was ranked No. 127 by The Athletic entering the 2021 season, while Bowling Green was ranked No. 125).
The Panthers’ offense looked solid behind quarterback Kenny Pickett, who passed for 272 yards and two touchdowns while completing 27 of his 37 pass attempts.
After the game, Pittsburgh head coach Pat Narduzzi sounded happy with his team’s performance, though he noted that he’s expecting a big improvement from week one to week two.
“Overall, the offense put up 51 points, and the defense was pretty nasty early,” said Narduzzi (via PittsburghPanthers.com). “Like I told the guys in there (locker room), you make your biggest improvement from week one to week two, I truly believe that, and we’ll clean up a lot of things.”
It’s going to be a tough challenge for the Vols. But if Tennessee is able to pull off a win against the Panthers, it will be the program’s biggest victory since beating No. 21 Auburn on the road in 2018 in Jeremy Pruitt’s first season as UT’s head coach.
If Heupel manages to lead Tennessee to a win against Pittsburgh, it would likely lock in a non-losing season for the Vols. With games remaining against Tennessee Tech, South Alabama, and Vanderbilt, it would guarantee at least a five-win season for UT. It’s hard to imagine Tennessee beating Pittsburgh and then failing to beat one of South Carolina, Missouri, or Kentucky.
Beating the Panthers would also signal to the Vol fan base that Heupel knows how to fix problems that arise for Tennessee’s offense.
The Vols did some good things against Bowling Green. The running game was on point. And the defensive line looked solid. But the passing game left a lot to be desired.
Joe Milton completed only 11 of 23 passes for 140 yards. The inefficiency of the passing game wasn’t just on Milton — the wide receivers had several drops that contributed to the struggles.
If Tennessee corrects those issues and looks more efficient in the passing game against Pittsburgh, it will give fans a lot of confidence that a successful season is in store for UT under Heupel’s guidance.
The Vols have a chance to be 3-0 entering the Swamp on September 25 against Florida. Can you imagine how hyped that game will be if Tennessee is off to a 3-0 start with a win over a Power-5 opponent?
A win on Saturday against Pittsburgh could be the moment that decides what kind of season the Vols are going to have in 2021.
Featured image via Saul Young/News Sentinel via Imagn Content Services