Evaluating Tennessee’s hire of Josh Heupel

The dust has settled, and there is finally a new head man on Rocky Top.

Less than a week after the hire of former UCF Athletics Director Danny White, the Vols double-dipped into Orlando to scoop up a familiar face for White, as UCF head coach Josh Heupel was named the 27th head coach in Tennessee football history on Wednesday. The move prompted mixed reactions among the majority of Tennessee fans, and the final verdict issued by Vol Nation appears to be… meh?

An average hire, for an average program.

To be clear, I am a Tennessee alum. I have always loved the University of Tennessee and always will. I also pride myself in being able to look at the state of the program without my orange-colored lenses. The reality is Tennessee was an unattractive job in 2017 after the atrocious decision to hire Greg Schiano that led to a fan revolt and preceded the most embarrassing coaching search in college football history. Fast-forward three years, and the gig is somehow less appealing after a disastrous 2020 campaign that saw the Jeremy Pruitt era come to an end with a massive NCAA sword still dangling over the program. Unfortunately, Tennessee’s deep pockets, top-notch facilities, illustrious history, and passionate fans do little to outweigh the fact that Rocky Top has been a graveyard for head coaches for over a decade, largely due to incompetence and dysfunction at the highest level of leadership. In the last ten seasons, this program is 60-62.

The harsh irony of this coaching search is that the only two candidates that would likely bring sure-fire excitement and wins – Hugh Freeze and Lane Kiffin – were the only two candidates looked at as “forbidden fruit” by decision-makers. The idea that Tennessee was going to be able to scoop up a sitting Power Five head coach with plenty of success under his belt was always a fantasy. We don’t know exactly what kind of conversations Danny White had with his primary candidates during this search, but it’s probably fair to assume the likes of Luke Fickell and James Franklin were never going to jump at the opportunity to walk into this situation, especially with NCAA sanctions still to come.

Enter Josh Heupel, an offensive guru with a 28-8 record as a head coach.

Ask yourself, Tennessee fans, which realistic candidate would you have been satisfied with over Heupel? Jamey Chadwell, a Tennessee native with a 79-52 overall record? Chadwell is a good coach with Tennessee ties who did an excellent job leading Coastal Carolina to an 11-1 season in 2020. Chadwell has also never coached in the Power Five, and only has a 19-17 record at the FBS level.

Despite his claims of Heupel being his “number one candidate”, Danny White was on the hunt for nearly a week before eventually falling back on the man he brought to UCF in 2018. Josh Heupel may be the best Tennessee can do right now, which I understand is a stark reality to try and comprehend for Vols fans.

With that, let’s take a look at the pros and cons Heupel brings to Knoxville.

Why Josh Heupel might succeed at Tennessee

Heupel’s biggest strength has been Tennessee’s biggest weakness over the last four seasons. The former National Championship winning quarterback at Oklahoma specializes in explosive offenses and quarterback development. I don’t need to sit here and remind you just how bad Tennessee has been at the quarterback position since the end of Joshua Dobbs’ career, if you’re still reading this you know that all too well. Heupel had a significant hand in developing a Heisman winner and a pair of first-round picks in Sam Bradford and Drew Lock throughout his career, but let’s zero in on what he did in his most recent stop.

A first-glance criticism of Heupel’s time at UCF is that he rode the coattails of Scott Frost’s undefeated “National Championship” season when he took the job in 2018 and took the Knights to a 12-1 record and an AAC title. There is no doubt Heupel walked into a great situation with a proven quarterback in McKenzie Milton. Milton’s career took a turn, however, when he suffered a devastating knee injury in the regular season finale win over USF. The Knights were able to overcome the loss of their star and leader with the play of backup quarterback Darriel Mack Jr, who threw for 348 yards and two scores in the AAC Championship win over Memphis and brought UCF within one possession of knocking off LSU in the Fiesta Bowl in what would be the only loss of the season.

In 2019, true freshman Dillon Gabriel – a Heupel recruit – took the reins and led the Knights to a 10-3 season in which UCF finished second in the nation in yards per game with 540, and Gabriel threw for over 3,600 yards and 29 touchdowns with only seven interceptions. In Gabriel’s sophomore season, he threw for over 3,500 yards, 32 touchdowns, and four interceptions in only 10 games as the Knights battled opt-outs to a 6-4 finish in a pandemic season.

In Heupel’s three seasons at UCF, the Knights finished No. 4, No. 2, and No. 2 in the country in yards per game. At Missouri, the Tigers finished top five in the country and No. 1 in the SEC in yards per game in 2016 and 2017 with Heupel calling the plays.

The talent is there in the quarterback room for Tennessee. Former blue-chip prospects Kaidon Salter and Harrison Bailey join Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker in what could be a fascinating quarterback battle in the offseason. Throw in speedy wideouts Jalin Hyatt and Velus Jones Jr, and there is no doubt Tennessee’s returning playmakers on offense are chomping at the bit right now.

Offensive guru with stats to back it up? Check. Championship success as a head coach? Check. SEC experience? Check.

Why Josh Heupel might fail at Tennessee

Quite simply, recruiting and defense. After winning the AAC, Heupel’s Knights finished at the top of the conference in recruiting with the 2019 class. In 2020, UCF had the conference’s fourth-best recruiting class, and the 2021 class currently sits at No. 7 in the AAC. In the recruiting hotbed that is Florida, this is certainly cause for concern.

“I’d like to close the borders and not let anyone out” said Heupel about recruiting the state of Tennessee. “It will absolutely be a focus for us”.

Whether or not Heupel can keep his head above the water in the cutthroat game that is SEC recruiting remains to be seen. The assistants he brings on to his staff will be crucial in this effort.

Speaking of assistants, who calls the defense? There are no questions about Heupel’s offensive pedigree. The Knights put up a whopping 42 points per game in 2020. But a defense – led by Randy Shannon – that allowed over 33 points per game is a big reason why UCF was only one notch above the .500 mark. Heupel runs a quick-strike, big play, read-option offense that can lead to his defense spending plenty of time on the field. Kevin Steele is currently employed by Tennessee as a defensive assistant. Does Heupel hang on to a proven commodity in the SEC as defensive coordinator?

Much like Jeremy Pruitt’s offensive coordinator hires, Heupel’s defensive assistant selections could make or break him in Knoxville. Pruitt couldn’t get it right on offense. Can Heupel get it right on defense?

Another factor is the obvious pressure that comes with the job in Knoxville. Josh Heupel has spent the last three years in Orlando, the home of Disney World and Universal Studios, where UCF football is hardly the top attraction. In Knoxville, Tennessee football runs the show. The pressure from fans and media is relentless. We’ve seen coaches crumble and falter under the pressure, and it remains to be seen if Heupel has the thick skin required for this job.

Final thoughts

Since 2008, Rocky Top has had a penchant for redefining the term “rock bottom”. Tennessee football is battered and bruised. The Vols lost six straight games by double figures in 2020 – the worst streak in program history. If there is one thing Josh Heupel’s offenses have done in the past, it’s keep UCF in games. Although they were blitzed by BYU in the Boca Raton Bowl, the Knights lost their three regular season games by a combined 12 points in 2020, including a 36-33 loss to Luke Fickell’s eighth-ranked Cincinnati Bearcats.

Danny White has never missed on a coaching hire, regardless of sport. Josh Heupel has never failed in bringing an exciting, up-tempo brand of football at each of his coaching stops. Both are owed the opportunity to succeed.

With that said, there is so much work to be done for Josh Heupel to be evaluated further. Can he re-recruit Tennessee players that are currently in the transfer portal? Will his make the right hires on defense, and keep up with the lofty recruiting standards that come with the job?

Josh Heupel might not be the guy to finally make Tennessee a championship contender for the first time since 2007. In fact, he most likely isn’t.

He might, however, be the guy to make Tennessee competitive again in the SEC without the bottom completely falling out. And right now, that’s as much as Tennessee can ask for.