When you’re a football coach in his first season at an SEC school, every game is incredibly important, for obvious reasons. But, let’s be honest here, some games carry a little more weight than others.
Josh Heupel has had a bit of a roller coaster inaugural season at Tennessee. From blowout wins over South Carolina and Missouri to heartbreaking losses against Ole Miss and Pittsburgh, Heupel has had his ups and downs so far. Although, generally, his team has looked better than expected even in its losses and a six-win season is all but locked in. If Heupel can beat just South Alabama and Vanderbilt, the Vols will be headed to a bowl game.
Six wins and a bowl game appearance in year one will be great, there’s no doubt about that, but with a win over Kentucky this Saturday and the addition of a seventh win, Heupel will have done something truly special.
For starters, the seventh regular-season win will give him a better first-season record than Tennessee’s last three coaches and would match Lane Kiffin’s initial year. It would also cement the Vols into third place in the SEC East behind just Georgia and Florida (and Florida’s not exactly looking like a solid No. 2). Showing in year one that you’re well ahead of the bottom half of the league is key for Heupel in repairing program perception and, most importantly, winning recruiting battles.
There’s almost no way to understate how massive winning on the recruiting trail is for Heupel and his staff right now. The team’s primary problem is depth. They need all the warm bodies they can get to put out on the field and a victory over a top 25 UK squad that you recruit against fairly often would help immensely in getting to that goal.
And let’s not forget the top 25-win factor here. Every time a coach is fired in college football, analysts talk about their record against top 25-ranked teams. Well, Kentucky, whether they really deserve it or not, is currently ranked No. 18 nationally. It would be a very nice addition to Heupel’s resume to beat a top 25 team and send a message to any recruits considering both the Vols and Wildcats that the Big Orange is the way to go.
Now, my goal is not to put undue pressure on Heupel and his team. I’m certain they know the stakes and want to win much more than even I do. But, let’s not beat around the bush, Saturday’s matchup with Kentucky is big for a number of reasons.
ESPN’s computer algorithm actually thinks the Vols will win, Vegas has the game at even, and history is certainly on UT’s side, having won 35 of the last 39 over UK. But despite this, Tennessee is still largely considered the underdog in this game. Though no matter what the pregame perception is, what happens during the game is all that really matters, so let’s see if Heupel can rise to the occasion.
Featured image via Butch Dill/USA TODAY