Tennessee’s game Saturday against Vanderbilt marks the end of Josh Heupel’s first regular season with the Vols. A seemingly underwhelming hire when it was first announced in January, Heupel has done nothing but turn heads since his arrival. Now, he has a chance to put the finishing touches on the best season a Tennessee first year head coach has had since Lane Kiffin won seven games in 2009.
Exceeding those expectations did not come as a shock to Heupel. With his offensive philosophy plus the talent at Tennessee when he got here and the talent that came via the transfer portal soon after, Heupel knew he had the makings of something special.
“From the moment I got here, I never placed a ceiling on what our football team could do,” Heupel said. “You've heard me say it, that 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. Certainly want some things to be better at the same time too, as a coach, but the growth of individuals and collectively as a team is really special.”
Some of the biggest contributors to Tennessee’s success has been its senior class, which will be honored Saturday as a part of Senior Day. From stalwarts in the secondary Theo Jackson, Alontae Taylor and Trevon Flowers, to Matthew Butler and his team-high 5.0 sacks on the defensive line, to speedy wide receivers Velus Jones Jr. and JaVonta Payton, the Vols have gone as far as its senior class has taken them.
Heupel understands just how important a senior class can be to a culture change, as he led Tennessee to bowl eligibility in his first season.
“Really appreciative of all that our guys have done, in particular since I've gotten here,” Heupel said. “They've been a huge part of laying the foundation to our program and been instrumental in the acceleration of our growth as a program, too.”
The Vols (6-5, 3-4 SEC) will look for one more showing from their seniors as they host Vanderbilt (2-9, 0-7 SEC) Saturday at 3:45 p.m. EST in Neyland Stadium, the final home game of the regular season.
“Right now, it's bittersweet,” Jackson said. “I've been here for a while. I've enjoyed my time but also, I feel like I haven't done enough still. Running through the T for the last time is going to be fun, but it's also going to be a little bit of emotion. It will be alright.”
Since sneaking past UConn by 2 points in early October, the Commodores have lost six straight games and are staring down their second consecutive winless conference schedule.
Their offense has been stagnant over that stretch as a whole, averaging around 14 points per game, but has recently found a spark behind quarterback Mike Wright, who took over for an injured and struggling Ken Seals. Wright has 844 yards and 7 touchdowns passing — nothing spectacular in nine games — but he is another athletic, mobile quarterback who can give Tennessee trouble on the ground.
“Any time the quarterback is a live wire and able to extend plays is always an issue,” Tennessee defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. “And then you combine that with them just having a pretty good surrounding cast of receivers that are long (and) physical, backs that aren't necessarily real big but have some twitch and can get vertical on you. It'll be a great challenge for us. I don't think their record really speaks to how well those guys have really played.”
Since being held to a pair field goals in a blowout loss to Mississippi State, Vanderbilt has scored 62 points in three games, well above its season average. An offense hitting its stride paired with a defense that is second in the SEC in interceptions could be a trap if the Vols brush it off.
It’s happened in the past — Tennessee lost five of seven to Vanderbilt from 2012-2018 — which is why Heupel is looking to his leaders one more time.
“It's for us, that we're going to finish as a program,” Heupel said. “We talked about that a little bit last week, but this is the end of the regular season. If we're going to finish it, then our preparation's going to be consistent but continue to get better. You're constantly proving things to yourself. To me, that's what we're trying to do this Saturday.”