Tennessee football can celebrate Josh Heupel debut, but don't ignore the warnings | Toppmeyer
The Josh Heupel era started perfectly Thursday night.
Tennessee’s first-year coach strolled up to Neyland Stadium wearing orange-tinted sunglasses. Heupel’s up-tempo offense chewed up yardage quickly in back-to-back first-quarter touchdown drives, running Bowling Green ragged.
Then the second quarter arrived with a thud, a reminder that not even victories against lowly opponents will come easily for the Vols in Heupel’s first season.
The Vols should celebrate the outcome, a 38-6 victory.
A program that averaged five wins the past four years and lost to a team from the Sun Belt Conference isn't positioned to take any victory for granted.
But let’s not ignore the opponent Thursday night.
Bowling Green was blown out in every game during a winless 2020. The Falcons are among the nation’s worst FBS programs. These are the types of opponents that should allow SEC teams to have their starters resting by the second half.
And yet, the Vols led by a single touchdown at halftime after a second quarter in which they mustered 13 yards and less than 2½ minutes of possession.
The first two quarters of the Heupel era offered a microcosm of what to expect from his offense: When the good times are rolling, it's turbo touchdowns. But also expect a helping of warp-speed three-and-outs.
You can see why Tennessee’s coaching staff likes quarterback Joe Milton. He displayed his elite arm strength on a pair of downfield passes intended for Cedric Tillman, launching the ball 65 yards with ease. The trouble was, he overthrew his target each time.
Milton, at times, took too long in the pocket and failed to spot open receivers quickly. Fortunately, Bowling Green mounted little pass rush. Don’t expect SEC foes to be so kind.
Milton mostly kept the Vols out of danger, but his production of 11-of-23 passing for 140 yards and a touchdown evoked memories of Jarrett Guarantano. Milton completed just two passes after the first quarter.
Tennessee also should be concerned by Bowling Green quarterback Matt McDonald’s performance. He completed 25 of 38 passes for 187 yards against the Vols' veteran secondary. This from a guy who completed 43.9% of his passes last season against a schedule that featured only Mid-American Conference foes.
Fortunately for Tennessee, it outmuscled Bowling Green in the trenches.
Jabari Small and Tiyon Evans enjoyed ample running lanes. For all the talk of Heupel’s quarterback development and his up-tempo offense, his offenses also feature a healthy run game. And the Small-Evans combo could emerge as the backbone of this team.
No one should expect Heupel to Make Tennessee Great Again in 2021.
But Heupel (with help from athletics director Danny White) can Make Tennessee Fun Again this season.
The Vols showed glimpses of that Thursday.
Tennessee’s offense wasted no time getting into full sprint. The Vols' first offensive play was a 1-yard run by Small (which is still better than the first play of the Jeremy Pruitt era – a fumble). Eight seconds later, Milton was receiving the snap for the next play.
The Heupel era will come at you fast.
Tennessee amassed five touchdown drives that each covered more than 50 yards in less than three minutes.
The only thing Pruitt’s offenses could be expected to compile in three minutes were a few short gains, a quarterback getting sacked and a penalty by an offensive lineman.
Tennessee's touchdowns were celebrated with orange-and-white fireworks. The stadium’s student section was vocal and filled to the gills, the payoff of a buy-one-get-one ticket promotion for students. New orange-and-white LED stadium lights twinkled throughout the night.
The Vols won’t be polished this season. Thursday's second-quarter headache will repeat more often against better opponents.
In between those headaches, Heupel’s Vols just might be fun.
Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.