Can Tennessee Vols coach Josh Heupel match Lane Kiffin's first UT season? | Adams

John Adams
Knoxville News Sentinel

Josh Heupel would be better off not studying Tennessee’s football history. His new coaching venture will be challenging enough without learning how first-year coaches have fared with the Vols.

In the past 60 years, no UT coach who succeeded a losing coach lost fewer than five games.

You don’t have to be a student of Tennessee football history to know that Heupel’s predecessor, Jeremy Pruitt, didn’t go out in a blaze of glory. He lost seven of 10 games and left the program on the brink of NCAA probation. Heupel has an easy act to follow but a tough hill to climb with a depleted roster.

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Bill Battle and Phillip Fulmer have been the most successful first-year coaches at Tennessee in the past 60 years. Both had the advantage of taking over a program that was stacked with talent.

In 1970, Battle went 11-1. He could thank previous coach Doug Dickey for his favorable depth chart. Dickey went 42-10-3 from 1965 through 1969 before leaving UT for Florida. He also won the SEC championship in two of his last three seasons with the Vols.

Fulmer benefited from following Johnny Majors. He went 10-2 in 1993. That was after Majors went 29-6-2 from 1989 through 1991 while winning two conference championships. In 1992, the Vols were 9-3. Three of those regular-season victories were credited to Fulmer, who served as interim head coach after Majors had to undergo heart surgery. Fulmer replaced Majors as permanent head coach after the regular season.

Lane Kiffin had the best season of a first-year coach who took the job after a losing season. Fulmer was fired after going 5-7 in 2008. Kiffin went 7-6 in 2009, his only season at Tennessee.

It’s not farfetched to think Heupel could match that in his first season.

Never mind that Pruitt left the program in disarray. Heupel could go 7-6 by winning half his regular-season games and a bowl game. His chances for success likely will hinge on how well he can revitalize the offense, especially the quarterback position. He has a track record for doing both, just as Kiffin did.

Heupel won’t be working with top-tier offensive talent. But there’s enough potential to make you think he could produce an effective offense.

His offense could get an assist from the schedule.

Five of UT’s opponents ranked 83rd or worse out of 127 FBS teams last season. Ole Miss was 126th; Vanderbilt, 121st; Bowling Green, 117th; South Carolina, 105th; Florida, 83rd. The Gators could be much improved on defense. But it’s unlikely any of the others will field a top-50 defense.

Tennessee also will play an FCS opponent, Tennessee Tech.

Georgia and Alabama could have top-10 defenses this season. But there are no other potentially dominant defenses on Tennessee’s schedule.

The Vols could have significant problems of their own on defense, which was heavily impacted by former starters transferring elsewhere. Nonetheless, this team will be judged more by its offense.

That’s supposed to be Heupel’s strength. If he has an immediate impact in that area, fans will be more optimistic about a program that has failed to live up to its expectations too often. Offensive recruits will take notice, too.

And Heupel could become Tennessee’s first first-year coach in 12 years to have a winning record.

John Adams is a senior columnist. He may be reached at 865-342-6284 or Follow him at: