KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – The Tennessee Volunteers are proving just how quickly a traditional powerhouse can rebound despite seeming lost for well over a decade.
Tennessee football hit the rockiest of bottoms in late January 2021. No athletic director, no coach after Jeremy Pruitt was among 10 fired for serious NCAA violations, and Volunteer players rushing toward the transfer portal to escape Knoxville.
“Those were some dark moments,” Tennessee Chancellor Donde Plowman said.
Now the Southeastern Conference program is among six undefeated teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision, with the No. 3 Vols (7-0) off to their best start since winning the national championship in 1998 — all in the span of 21 months.
Neyland Stadium once again is the place to be, entertaining a fourth straight sellout for the first time since 2014 when Tennessee cruised to a 65-24 homecoming victory against UT Martin on Saturday.
Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning smoked victory cigars with new Vols star Jalin Hyatt. Country stars Kenny Chesney and Kelsea Ballerini popped into town to watch last weekend’s win over Alabama from the top of the stadium.
Athletic director Danny White, hired by Plowman, knew Tennessee had resources, tradition, passion and a strong fan base when he decided to leave UCF in January 2021. White also knew he and Josh Heupel, the coach he brought with him from UCF a few days later, had a plan that would work.
No. White said Saturday the Vols are “way ahead of schedule” in their second season together.
“Just because this year is better than what people expected, it doesn’t mean that we’re there," White said. "And we have to build a program that’s sustainable and built for the long haul. And that’s exactly what Josh and the staff are focused on.”
Before Plowman hired White, Tennessee went through Mike Hamilton, Dave Hart, John Currie and former football coach Phillip Fulmer as athletic directors. The revolving door of football coaches started in 2008 when Fulmer was fired and included Lane Kiffin, Derek Dooley, Butch Jones and Pruitt.
The chancellor had people urging her to hire a coach first with National Signing Day closing in. Plowman said no. Her job is hiring the athletic director, and she and Randy Boyd, the university system's president, flew to Orlando for a dinnertime meeting and hired White three days later.
White met with players to find out what they wanted in a new coach, and their answers made him feel bringing Heupel with him from UCF was the right move.
One big question was how Heupel's fast-paced offense, which uses almost every inch from sideline to sideline, would translate to the SEC. Boyd said everybody likes to score points but Tennessee is in the SEC.
“Sure enough, he’s proved me wrong,” Boyd said. "He actually knows something about putting some points up.”
Tennessee was ranked first nationally with an average of 551 offensive yards, and then it rolled to 696 yards against UT Martin. The Vols also are scoring 50.1 points a game. White isn't surprised to see Heupel's offense translate easily to the SEC.
“If there's a better offensive mind in the game, I’d like to meet him," White said.
Heupel puts it even more simply: “Good teams get better throughout the course of the season, so we have to continue to get better.”
Hendon Hooker, Tennessee’s first Heisman Trophy candidate since Manning finished second in 1997, is the engine behind the gaudy offensive numbers. Hooker has thrown for 18 touchdowns with only one interception this season while piling up 2,093 yards passing.
Earl Brown of Knoxville has been a season-ticket holder since 1972; keeping the tickets was a condition before marrying Judy that Thanksgiving to make game day that week. Saturday was the 323rd straight game Brown has attended, even making each of the 10 SEC-only games in 2020 when the Vols went 3-7 in Pruitt's last year.
Yes, Earl Brown says it was tough to sit through those games. But it just added to the celebration of the Alabama win after 15 straight losses in the series.
“People all around us were actually, literally crying,” Judy Brown said. “It was a a big monkey off our back. This one felt like the national championship. We were there, and ... it wasn't the national championship, but it felt like it.”
Tennessee is the only FBS program this season with wins over four AP Top 25 ranked teams at the time of the games, the first time since 1998 it has done that in the regular season.
The challenge gets tougher from here. Kentucky visits Saturday night, followed by the Volunteers going to Athens for a showdown with Georgia.
Boyd turns 63 on Monday. He has been watching Vols football since he was 7. He had thought that this year's team would be really good, but not at the level of reigning national champ Georgia and perennial threat Alabama.
“We no longer have to qualify it that way,” Boyd said. "I think we can beat anybody in the country on any given day.”
Follow Teresa M. Walker at https://twitter.com/TeresaMWalker
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