The Tennessee Vols made the rest of the SEC take notice in 2021.

Tennessee wasn’t supposed to be very good last season. After Jeremy Pruitt nearly ruined the program, Josh Heupel was tasked with rebuilding Tennessee football for what felt like the 50th time in the last 15 years (the math works, just don’t check behind me).

Not only did Heupel help the Vols avoid a losing season in 2021 (which was what many analysts were predicting), but he also led UT to a winning season (7-6 with a loss to Purdue in the Music City Bowl).

Thanks to the unexpected 7-6 season last year, the Vols are receiving a significant amount of pre-season hype ahead of the 2022 season. It’s not that anyone is predicting Tennessee to win the SEC East, but we’re seeing a lot of early top 25 polls with the Vols ranked fairly high.

For example, CBS Sports recently released their post-spring top 25 and they have Tennessee at No. 15.

From CBS Sports:

Josh Heupel had a nice debut season in the SEC. But this will be Year 2 with the dark specter of an NCAA investigation hanging over the program. Hendon Hooker returns after throwing 31 touchdown passes and leading the SEC in efficiency.

Vols
Tennessee running back Jabari Small (2) runs the ball down the field at the 2021 Music City Bowl NCAA college football game at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tenn. on Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021.
Kns Tennessee Purdue

The Vols are certainly capable of being a top 15 team in 2022. The offense is explosive, key players are returning, and the players in the program will be more comfortable in Heupel’s second season.

But pre-season hype doesn’t win games. If anything, it can be detrimental to a program. It’s cliché, but outside noise can wreck a program. Why do you think Alabama’s Nick Saban routinely preaches against “rat poison” from the media?

The pre-season hype is one of the biggest obstacles that Heupel and his staff have to deal with this offseason. They can’t let the hype creep inside the program and let it alter the way the team prepares for the 2022 season.

Hype from the media is a good thing. It puts Tennessee in headlines for positive reasons, which is a good thing for recruiting. I know there are plenty of folks who would prefer that the national media sleep on the Vols, but I think the hype and high expectations are something Tennessee should embrace.

They just have to understand that the hype means nothing unless the team executes on Saturdays in the fall. If Heupel can keep his team in check — because let’s be honest, it’s impossible for Tennessee’s players to avoid hearing the outside noise — then none of this will be an issue.

But if Tennessee’s players start reading the hype and thinking a 10-win season is automatic, instead of focusing on putting in the work, then it could be disastrous for the Vols in 2022.

This isn’t Heupel’s first rodeo — his extensive coaching career/playing career has prepared him for situations like this. But he still has to make sure his team is in the right headspace entering the 2022 season.

Featured image via Calvin Mattheis/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK