Tennessee Vols Josh Heupel could have a better first season than second | Adams

John Adams
Knoxville News Sentinel

Football coaches Butch Jones and Jeremy Pruitt had something in common besides following one another on Tennessee’s firing line. Both benefited from a bad start.

Jones went 5-7 in 2013, his first season with the Vols. Five years later, Pruitt made his Vols debut by also going 5-7.

The early failure worked to their advantage — for a while.

 In Jones’ second season, the Vols went 7-6. He even posted back-to-back nine-win seasons in 2015 and 2016 before deplorable player relations and coaching deficiencies doomed him to a 4-8 Tennessee finale in 2017.

Pruitt demonstrated even more progress in his second season, winning eight of 13 games despite losing the season opener to 25-point underdog Georgia State. That improvement proved to be an aberration in 2020 when Pruitt won only three of 10 games even with the help of dishonorable recruiting.

Although their Tennessee ventures ended badly, Jones and Pruitt each made inroads with fans initially by showing improvement from Year 1 to Year 2.

You shouldn’t count on that from new coach Josh Heupel. That’s not a criticism. It’s a testament to the damage Pruitt did to UT football.

I rarely make excuses for football coaches. When you are making upwards of $3 million a year, should you really get excuses, too?

But in Heupel’s case, I can’t resist.

Other Tennessee coaches have lamented how little talent they inherited. However, none of them began their struggles with as many disadvantages as Heupel, who has been handicapped by the likelihood of NCAA sanctions (thanks to his predecessor) and a mass exodus of starting players to the transfer portal.

There are a couple of other reasons why Heupel will experience more success in his first season than his second. The schedule is one of them.

In 2021, a home game against Pittsburgh will be UT’s most challenging non-conference game. In 2022, the Vols will play at Pittsburgh. Also, in 2022, Tennessee will have to deal with Army’s option offense, which often bedevils more talented programs.

Tennessee’s 2022 SEC schedule will be more difficult since LSU will replace Ole Miss as the Vols’ rotating opponent from the SEC West. In fact, the entire conference should be better in 2022 than this year.

The SEC is at its best when it has the experience to match its talent. It should have that combination next year.

This season, the conference won't have the depth of talent and experience that it had the past two seasons - or next season. I became more aware of that last month when making my contributions to a USA TODAY Network project to rank the top 10 SEC players in every position group.

The difference is especially obvious at the top of the conference. There might be another national champion waiting in the wings, but there's no super team.

In 2019, LSU went undefeated, won the national championship and established itself as one of the best teams in college football history. In 2020, Alabama did the same.

The NFL draft helped validate how elite those teams were. Fourteen LSU players were taken in the 2020 draft, including five in the first round.  A year later, 10 Alabama players were drafted, including six in the first round.

The SEC again should be the nation’s top football conference. But it won’t have a team to remind you of those last two national champions. Also, expect a drop-off in the middle and bottom of the league. But the SEC should be stronger throughout in 2022.

That will work to Tennessee’s advantage this season. It won’t work to the advantage of a coach trying to improve his record from Year 1 to Year 2.

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.