With bowl eligibility in its pocket after notching its sixth win last week, Tennessee now shoots for a winning season.
When the Volunteers host Vanderbilt on Saturday in Knoxville, Tenn., they have a chance to close their season with a 7-5 record and a 4-4 mark in the Southeastern Conference. That would, by all accounts, make Josh Heupel’s first season as coach in Knoxville a resounding success.
While Tennessee isn’t quite at the level of No. 1 Georgia or No. 2 Alabama, it’s at least made up more than its share of ground on the next tier of the SEC. A year ago, when the Volunteers went 3-7 and coach Jeremy Pruitt paid for it with his job, it seemed like this program was doomed to perpetual mediocrity.
Heupel and his coaching staff, which turned Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker from a serviceable quarterback to one of the most efficient players in the country, have accelerated the timetable.
“From the moment I got here, I never placed a ceiling on what this football team could do,” Heupel said. “We’re in a race against ourselves. I’m so proud of the growth from the first day that I got here to who we are now.”
Hooker has completed 70 percent of his passes for 2,411 yards and 24 touchdowns, with just three interceptions, while adding 485 yards and five touchdowns on the ground. He threw for 273 yards and two scores last week in a 60-14 rout of South Alabama.
Meanwhile, Vanderbilt (2-9, 0-7) and its first-year coach, Clark Lea, are merely hoping to pull an upset that would give them momentum going into the offseason. The Commodores lost 31-17 last week at Ole Miss.
To threaten Tennessee, Vanderbilt has to score touchdowns instead of field goals. It gained a season-high 454 yards last week but couldn’t punch the ball into the end zone until it trailed 31-9 in the fourth quarter.
“We’ll need to be a game-control offense that finishes with touchdowns,” Lea said.
The Volunteers own a 77-33-5 record in the series, including a 42-17 win last December in Nashville.
–Field Level Media