Monday, July 15, 2024

Josh Heupel isn’t what Tennessee expected, but who is at this point?

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What else would you expect on Rocky Top?

Tennessee on Wednesday announced the hiring of Josh Heupel, who completes the logical pairing with former UCF athletic director Danny White. How did Volunteers fans react? Look at the comments section:

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This search for coaching was far from the disastrous research in 2018 It started with Greg Schiano and ended with Jeremy Pruitt, but it took a tough turn at the end that puts Heupel in an unenviable position before starting.

Tony Elliott was an emerging contender, but Clemson’s offensive coordinator opted to stick with a national championship contender. Former SEC coaches Gus Malzhan and Hugh Freeze were on Vols fans’ wishlists. Big Ten coaches PJ Fleck and James Franklin stayed behind. Jamey Chadwell of Coastal Carolina, a Tennessee native who led the Chanticleers to an 11-1 record this season, was considered one of the top contenders in the Group of 5. Even Lane Kiffin, whose one-year stint at the Tennessee produced a 7-6 record, laughed at the possibility of returning.

The truth is, it is difficult to lure a top coach into a program that is willing to self-report recruiting violations in an attempt to remove coaches they no longer want.

Perhaps that’s why White, whose recruiting was met with fanfare less than a week ago, found himself with a coach he can trust. Heupel is 28-8 the last three seasons at UCF since taking over from Scott Frost, who was 19-7 from 2016 to 2017 before embarking on the impossible rebuild in Nebraska. The Knights have the eighth-best FBS record in that five-year streak at 47-15, which is a half-game better than Notre Dame and LSU. Yes, they won a national league title in 2017, but at least it was an interesting debate.

Tennessee has been a long way from a national championship since Kiffin was hired in 2008. The Flights are 73-75 thanks to Kiffin, Butch Jones, Derek Dooley and Pruitt – the 11th best SEC record during that time. Ole Miss (74-73) produced better results. Texas Tech has the same track record. If the Red Raiders had hired Heupel this round via the Coaching Carousel, then the move would barely have been recorded through a news cycle.

Recognize the rental for what it is. The program isn’t in a position to hire this renowned trainer at this time and, to be fair, Tennessee fans weren’t going to be really happy with any of these names apart from maybe Malzahn, who was just sent back to Auburn and replaced by Bryan Harsin of Boise State. It’s almost the same as Tennessee. Freeze, which revived her career at Liberty, still comes with the baggage of NCAA sanctions that were handed down on Ole Miss.

Tennessee couldn’t get that attention now, not while facing possible NCAA sanction for alleged recruiting violations under Pruitt. Athletic director Phillip Fulmer, who was the coach of Tennessee’s last national championship team in 1998, has also retired. The schedule has seen an endless descent after Fulmer’s final season, and White and Heupel are tasked with making Tennessee competitive in the SEC East again. Flights have 10-24 years in conference over the past four years.

It’s a mess, and White and Heupel end up with a huge cleanup job.

Heupel can lead the offensive. He was Missouri’s offensive coordinator in 2017, when the Tigers scored 37.5 points per game and finished 7-6. This included a 50-17 rout against Tennessee which was Jones’ last game. The UCF have averaged 43 points per game over the past three seasons, and a 40-point offense is required to win the SEC.

But can Heupel train the defense? Can he recruit in the SEC? Can he be successful against these rivals. Tennessee have been a 4-22 combined against Florida and Georgia since 2008 and haven’t beaten Alabama since 2006. They can’t do much worse, honestly.

Will Heupel succeed? It depends on the sliding scale definition of success. If he could push Tennessee to a 10-game winning season – which hasn’t been done since 2007 – that would be a start. How much time will Heupel have to atone for the mess created by four predecessors? Four years would be the minimum.

Tennessee needs to be patient – and no, its pain is not exclusive. Other ’90s national championship programs that were all the rage in the past – Florida state, Miami, Nebraska and Michigan, to be precise – are fighting the same battle. These shows all tend to look back rather than forward, and sometimes the perfect candidate, like Frost or Jim Harbaugh, isn’t always a home run.

Heupel isn’t what you want right now, and he might never be. But this line of thinking will produce yet more coaching research four years from now.

This is what has become the norm on Rocky Top.

Until that changes, you can’t expect anything more.


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