The Tennessee Vols‘ 2021 season ended on a sour note.

Instead of finishing with an 8-5 record — which I think a lot of folks (including myself) assumed would be the case — the Vols finished 7-6 thanks to a crushing loss in the Music City Bowl against Purdue.

Tennessee didn’t play its best football of the season against the Boilermakers. And the officiating left a lot to be desired. Those two factors combined to send the Volunteers into the offseason with a 48-45 loss. Not the way that UT was hoping to end the season.

The lasting image of Tennessee’s 2021 season will inevitably be Vols running back Jaylen Wright getting swindled out of a go-ahead touchdown. But that’s not what UT fans should focus on.

Instead, they should look at the season as a whole. A season that was one of the Vols’ more successful seasons of the last decade. A season that seemed unlikely nearly a year ago when Tennessee was dealing with the fallout of a recruiting scandal that resulted in Jeremy Pruitt losing his job as UT’s head coach.

Between the NCAA recruiting investigation and a mass exodus of talent, it seemed like the Vols were years away from being bowl eligible.

Josh Heupel, who was hired to replace Pruitt, took over a worse situation than any of the coaches that had been hired at Tennessee since Phillip Fulmer was forced out in 2008.

Yet somehow, Heupel managed to change the Vols’ culture and lead Tennessee to its most prolific offensive season in program history.

The Vols shouldn’t have been this good this season offensively. Really, they had no business being this good. The quarterback situation was unsettled entering the offseason. Key players like running back Eric Gray and offensive lineman Wanya Morris left the program (among many others on both sides of the ball). The depth chart could’ve fit on a post-it note. It was seemingly a hopeless situation.

But Heupel found a way. He built a great staff, changed the culture, and quickly implemented his offensive system.

Even the defense played better than I expected. Sure, they gave up a lot of points. But anyone who actually watched Tennessee play saw a defense that played with great effort, didn’t look confused (like they usually did under Pruitt) and played with aggression (UT set a program record for tackles for loss this season with 102).

(Side note: One of the most impressive things about this season to me was the way Tennessee’s up-tempo offense operated. After a big play, there were no celebrations. Players quickly threw the ball to the referee in charge of spotting the ball and immediately got in position for the next play. That’s a sign of incredible coaching and buy-in.)

This season was a major success for UT regardless of the loss to Purdue. No one thought in January of 2021 that a 7-6 record this season was possible. Vol fans should feel the most excited they’ve felt about the program since the mid-2000s.

This team is going places under Heupel. It’s going to take a little while to close the talent gap. Just be patient. It won’t happen overnight. But it’s going to happen.

And Tennessee will play in some big games in December and January again.

Featured image via Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports