Tennessee football coach Josh Heupel faces unprecedented challenges but also has some factors in his favor | Adams

John Adams
Knoxville News Sentinel

The challenges facing new Tennessee football coach Josh Heupel are obvious and numerous. In fact, no other UT coach has taken over the program with it in such dire straits – and that’s saying something.

The Vols are coming off three losing seasons in the past four years. They have incurred massive attrition through the transfer portal. And the possibility of an NCAA investigation and sanctions doesn’t do much for recruiting.

Heupel has factors in his favor, though. Here are a few of them:

Low expectations: As frustrated as UT fans might be by seven losing seasons in the past 13 years and all the failed coaching hires, they’re knowledgeable enough to appreciate Heupel’s predicament. Previous coach Jeremy Pruitt struggled to develop the talent he recruited, and many of the best players he left behind weren't intent on being VFLs.

So, fans know what Heupel is up against.

Not only have the Vols dropped well below Alabama, Georgia and Florida, but they likely also will be underdogs against Ole Miss and Kentucky in Heupel’s first season. Fans also know that Lane Kiffin is the only one of UT’s last four coaches to win more than five games in his first season.

Heupel can thank Derek Dooley, Butch Jones and Pruitt for the low bar.

A receptive audience: Tennessee’s returning players who experienced last season’s 3-7 record should be open to coaching. They also might assume that whatever Heupel and his staff throw at them will be an upgrade over what they experienced under Pruitt.

The offensive players should be especially eager since Pruitt’s offenses were hit and miss, and the hits were far fewer than the misses.

Quarterback options: UT doesn’t have a Heisman Trophy candidate among its starting quarterback candidates, but its quarterback pool – enhanced by transfers Joe Milton and Hendon Hooker – seldom has been as deep. Milton, Hooker, Brian Maurer and Harrison Bailey have starting experience. Freshman Kaidon Salter is a four-star recruit with athleticism and a strong arm.

That depth will play to Heupel’s strength. He was a starting quarterback on Oklahoma’s last national championship team and has a history of developing quarterbacks as an assistant coach.

With five quarterbacks from which to choose, the odds favor his finding a competent starter.

A manageable schedule: The nonconference schedule is lighter than usual, but Pittsburgh likely will prove troublesome. At least Heupel won't have an opener as formidable as Pruitt did in his Tennessee debut – nationally ranked West Virginia.

The Vols should win their other three nonconference games. They also could beat Missouri, South Carolina and Vanderbilt within the conference, which would give them a 6-6 record and bowl eligibility.

And leave Heupel with the best record of a first-year Tennessee coach since Kiffin.

A familiar boss: Most coaches would prefer working for the athletic director who hired them. Heupel will have the added advantage of having the same AD he had at UCF.

Heupel should know just what to expect from Danny White, who is an experienced athletic director.

Phillip Fulmer, who hired Pruitt, was a former football coach with no AD experience. His lack of experience showed.

John Adams is a senior columnist. He may be reached at 865-342-6284 or john.adams@knoxnews.com. Follow him at: twitter.com/johnadamskns.