Under third year head coach Josh Heupel, the Vols are heading into the 2023 season with sky-high expectations. More importantly, there is hope. Hope that is backed up by results.
With the conclusion of spring practice and the Orange and White game, the next time that fans will watch the Vols play will be on September 2 on opening day for the 2023 season against Virginia at Nissan Stadium.
The Vols are coming off their most successful season in nearly two decades. So, what should be expected after a program-changing season?
Naturally, a step forward is going to be expected from Tennessee. However, a step forward would be a College Football Playoff. Realistically, stability should be expected.
As a program that has experienced so much turmoil since 2008, the Vols are looking for sustained success for the first time in that time period after experiencing more losing seasons (eight) than winning seasons (six) before Heupel came to town.
Heupel has yet to record a losing season in his short tenure on Rocky Top, and that is likely to continue. But this team is not last year’s team, and it should be treated as such.
“It is different. Our roster is different,” Heupel said after the Orange and White Game. “Late April, May, June and July, you have to win those months if you are going to have a chance when you get to September. This group has been very mature in how they have handled themselves. It is one of the things I love about them. I love seeing them when they come into the building. They are super competitive and have done things the right way. Anticipate us continuing that down there stretch here as we get into May.”
Despite losing five of its primary contributors to the NFL draft, Tennessee still boasts a wide variety of returning talent. Guys like quarterback Hendon Hooker can’t be replaced, but Joe Milton filled in nicely when Hooker went down with an ACL tear.
Milton threw for 971 yards, 10 touchdowns and no picks while leading the Vols to an Orange Bowl win over Clemson. His performance gives hope that there won’t be a steep drop off at the most important position. Behind him is five-star freshman Nico Iamaleava, who could be ready to go later on in the season should Milton underperform
The Vols also lost wide receivers Jalin Hyatt and Cedric Tillman, but the wide receiver room has never been an issue under Heupel despite questions surrounding the room at the start of the season.
That trend is on track to continue with Bru McCoy, Ramel Keyton and Squirrel White returning along with Dont’e Thornton coming in from Oregon.
However, the strength of this offense will be the running back room, which returns all production and more from the 2022 season. Though the passing game draws eyes and takes most of the credit, the running game is the engine that makes the machine go.
Tennessee returns Jaylen Wright, Jabari Small and Dylan Sampson, who combined for a total of 2,006 yards and 29 touchdowns on the ground in 2022. Group that with intriguing freshmen Cam Seldon and DeSean Bishop and it’s a stacked room.
The simple truth is that the offense will likely never be an issue under Heupel.
“The standard for this offense is to be the best offense in the country,” offensive coordinator Joey Halzle said. “That’s not a graphic tagline. That’s how we feel. How we do. What we do. The guys that we have, we feel that we should go out and execute and be the best offense in the country.”
However, the defense still leaves a lot to be desired.
The short answer is “we’ll see,” but that’s no fun.
The strength will continue to be stopping the run with the interior defensive line returning all of its production, but the main question is the secondary. What the group has going for it is depth after returning all starters from last season in addition to some key newcomers like Gabe Jeudy-Lally and Jordan Matthews.
Last year, an early season injury to its No. 1 corner Warren Burrell devastated the secondary, and the dominoes slowly fell as the season progressed. Tennessee finally has bodies there, and a step forward is to be expected.
The Vols have another tough schedule ahead of them, having to face Florida and Alabama on the road. Georgia will come to Neyland Stadium, but the back-to-back national champions are going to be a tough game no matter where it’s played. Tennessee faces a talented Texas A&M team at home as well.
Those four games will be the toughest, and the remaining eight are should wins. Obviously, South Carolina coming to Knoxville will be a highly anticipated matchup given what happened last season. Still, the baseline for the Vols will be eight wins or more as long as they take care of business.
Eight wins would likely be seen as a disappointment to most, and that number will likely be higher. Either way, Tennessee football is a stable program for the first time since Phillip Fulmer.
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