KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Dolly Parton was in the house. Peyton Manning, too. Neyland Stadium was full on a spectacular November day for football, with less Georgia Bulldogs red than usual infringing on the Tennessee Volunteers orange.
Tennessee’s Jaylen Wright got the ball from Joe Milton on the first play from scrimmage, found a gaping hole created by Cooper Mays and others, and raced 75 yards for a touchdown. No one could catch him. Shoot, no Bulldogs touched him. The place was up for grabs. It felt like the beginning of one of those memorable days in Neyland, maybe something like last year when Josh Heupel’s Vols stunned the SEC’s other superpower, Alabama, and declared themselves a superpower-in-progress.
— Tennessee Football (@Vol_Football) November 18, 2023
Thing is, a bunch of programs in this league have moments. And upsets. And declarations based on both. Two of them have the goods to be what Tennessee and LSU and Florida and Texas A&M and Auburn — and coming soon, Texas and Oklahoma — aspire to be. After a certain amount of time, it’s what they all think they should be. So make more room on that sprawling list of SEC coaches who essentially lose their jobs at the hands of Nick Saban and Kirby Smart.
And right now, if you’re a Tennessee fan? Resist the urge to overreact to the recent struggles of Josh Heupel. I dare say, as holiday clichés overcome me, be thankful for Heupel. He’s got a shot. The best shot of anyone since Phillip Fulmer of building a program that can attain the heights of Fulmer’s.
Now, the chances Heupel will take the Vols where you want them to go are roughly the same in my mind as the chances any promising college quarterback will become a legitimate NFL franchise quarterback. The vast majority don’t. So, probably not. But I don’t know that. You don’t know that. And the way some of these programs end up looking more like the bottom of the league than the top is by not having the patience to find out.
Promise and hope both still exist in Knoxville with Heupel’s program, even after his third team was destroyed 38-10 by Smart’s Bulldogs. This followed up a 36-7 loss at Missouri, which means this team will be 8-4 — yes, I’m writing a win over Vanderbilt in pen — entering a middling bowl game. That’s disappointing, as it is to see this team so overwhelmed by injuries, superior opponents and its own mistakes in the late stages of a season.
The No. 18 Vols (7-4, 3-4 SEC) had 202 yards on 54 plays after Wright’s big one. Wright, who is special, an NFL talent, had 15 yards on eight carries the rest of the day. The No. 1 Bulldogs (11-0, 8-0) did whatever they wanted to do. I asked in the press room after the game if anyone could recall the second-best play of the game for Tennessee. Jokes about Georgia dropped passes on third down and meaningless field goals ensued.
The only resonating highlights after the first play were the legendary Parton, escorted to the field by Peyton Manning, singing “Rocky Top” after the first quarter. And the ice cream coolers in the press box being unlocked at halftime. Though some complained that they included no “Snickers” ice cream bars. That’s all I’ve got for you.
Dolly Parton’s singing interrupts Brad Nessler’s play-by-play.
Or, Brad Nessler’s play-by-play interrupts Dolly Parton’s singing. pic.twitter.com/Sp7reY5vjR
— Awful Announcing (@awfulannouncing) November 18, 2023
Heupel has done good things, the list opening with last season’s stirring win over Saban and Alabama, but he hasn’t figured out Georgia. This dismantling followed up last season’s 27-13 win for No. 3 Georgia against No. 1 Tennessee, which was not nearly that close. And that followed up a 41-17 win for the Bulldogs over Heupel’s first team. That’s a trend. Also a trend: Georgia won national championships to finish those first two seasons and is well on its way to a third, led this time by Carson Beck, Brock Bowers and an offense that is starting to look as dominant as the past two Georgia defenses.
“We’ve still got to continue to take steps,” Heupel said. “In what we’re doing as a program. It’s our personnel, the depth of our program, all those things, to continue to climb the ranks inside this league.”
Heupel gestured to his right, to outside the press room, to wherever the Bulldogs were, likely celebrating with a shrug and a few slices of pizza before turning thoughts to the next team they’ll humiliate. Heupel laughed a bit as he continued: “That’s a really good football team. You know what I mean? What they’ve done is special. We’ve got a ways to go.”
He’s right. And they’re getting there. Or, more accurately, they’re getting closer. “There” is a lofty place when it comes to accumulating talent at the level of Georgia or Alabama. The 247Sports “Blue-Chip Ratio” devised by Bud Elliott has been very accurate in projecting national championship contenders, and it essentially says you must have more players in your past four recruiting classes who were four- and five-star recruits than three-star recruits and lower.
Tennessee came into this season with 35 players at or above the four-star threshold per 247Sports rankings (though just two, freshman quarterback Nico Iamaleava and transfer receiver Bru McCoy, got five stars), and 50 below it. That’s 41.2 percent, good for No. 16 in the nation.
Georgia? Try 77 percent. Alabama? How about an absurd 90 percent. Any individual star ranking can turn out to be fraudulent, of course. Zero-star recruits become NFL stars and five-star recruits go without playing meaningful college downs. Development, team chemistry and scheme matter as well. But in bulk, those ratings consistently tell the story of the best teams in the sport.
Heupel is coming with another strong class right now — two five-star recruits, 10 four-star recruits and eight with three stars. Throw in expected transfer portal activity and next year’s roster should have enough chips that are blue to count Tennessee among mathematical national title contenders.
Actual contention is difficult to project, of course, until we see what this offense is with Iamaleava quarterbacking it instead of outgoing senior Milton. It’s hard to imagine it won’t be significantly better. Milton has not had the sixth season he or anyone else wanted. Dane Brugler, NFL draft analyst for The Athletic, reiterated Saturday that he’s a prospect who could go anywhere between rounds four and seven.
“We want Nico!” chants that could be heard at times from UT fans Saturday spoke to Milton’s consistent struggles. Amid media members devouring ice cream at halftime as if paid per sprinkle, one mumbled: “Nico better be good.”
If Iamaleava is as good as hoped, he won’t be around for a redshirt to matter, but he didn’t play Saturday to preserve a redshirt year, just in case. Now he can play against Vanderbilt and in the bowl game and won’t lose a year of eligibility.
The success and longevity of Heupel’s tenure is going to be tied to Iamaleava bringing this offense back to what it was under departed star Hendon Hooker.
There are trends to be concerned with under Heupel, including his defense’s play against top offenses — defensive coordinator Tim Banks has a fierce pass rush most Saturdays and tried all he could to pressure Beck, but Georgia’s offensive line had none of it — and his team’s maturity in road games and tendency this season to let bad stretches snowball. But his offense this season isn’t part of any trend. It’s an outlier.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve looked at scoreboards the way we have this year,” Heupel said.
They’ve been unkind. The Vols are averaging 21.0 points per game in SEC play. In Heupel’s first two seasons, that number was 39.1 points per game.
This staff has to develop more high-level receivers and offensive linemen. And, of course, more depth. Because this team has been crushed by injuries. McCoy has missed most of the season with a fractured and dislocated ankle, Dont’e Thornton was lost for the season at Missouri, the Vols played without both starting tackles Saturday and they lost guard Javontez Spraggins during the game.
“This game doesn’t care,” Heupel said of the injuries. “There’s no asterisk.”
No, but there are stars. Many, many stars are needed in Knoxville, so the Tennessee Volunteers can belong on a football field with the Georgia Bulldogs for more than a play.
(Top photo of Joe Milton getting sacked by Mykel Williams: Steve Limentani / ISI Photos / Getty Images)