It’s early to be heaping lots of praise onto new Tennessee football coach Josh Heupel but there’s no denying that Saturday’s beat-down win over Missouri was remarkable. Considering the swaths of players that left in the offseason and all of the tumultuous nonsense that has surrounded the program, whipping an SEC team not named Vanderbilt was truly a sight for sore eyes.
But more than the breakneck offense that got Missouri’s defensive line coach fired and the better-than-expected defense, I saw something last weekend that I haven’t seen from a Tennessee football team in quite a while: Genuine improvement.
Heupel’s team looked markedly better from one week to the next. The Florida and Pittsburgh losses featured brutal turnovers, penalties, and mental mistakes. While these are to be expected to a certain extent from a team with a paper-thin roster and a brand new coach and system, you have to hope the coach gets things cleaned up.
And clean up, Josh Heupel did.
Against the Panthers in week two, the Vols committed 13 penalties for 134 yards. Against the Gators in Gainesville, that was scaled back slightly to 10 penalties for 85 yards, but in the Mizzou game, Tennessee committed just two fouls for 20 yards.
The Vols gave the ball away three times during the Pitt game, zero against Missouri. Quarterback Hendon Hooker looked the most composed and dynamic that he ever has in Columbia, going 15-19 for 225 yards through the air (11.8 yards per throw) and he ran for 80 yards en route to firmly being named UT’s starter under center.
Honestly, Heupel’s handling of the quarterback situation deserves a short aside here. He recognized quickly that his preseason assessment of Joe Milton as the Vols’ starter was wrong and smoothly transitioned to Hooker using a mild injury to Milton as cover for the change. Nobody really batted an eye and Tennessee’s offense got significantly better as a result.
And while Saturday’s performance may not be fully replicable in perpetuity, the Vols’ running game looked absolutely unstoppable against the Tigers, and the defense stood strong in the face of a UM offense that was averaging almost 39 points per game coming in.
Sure, Missouri’s defense is absolutely awful and their stadium at noon isn’t exactly equivalent to the Swamp at night but the huge steps forward that the Vols took are notable no matter how you look at it. If carried forward into the remainder of the season, Tennessee will likely be the No. 3 team in the SEC East. And for a first-year coach taking over an incredibly damaged program, that would be impressive.
This week’s matchup with South Carolina will be a big test for Heupel in drowning out the hype and not overlooking a seemingly lesser opponent with a big game against Ole Miss coming up next week. If Heupel can consistently keep his team focused and ready to play mistake-free football over multiple weeks in a tough SEC schedule, he might quickly make believers out of me and the rest of the Tennessee fan base.
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