Football Season Draws Near for Vols

By Mark Nagi

Last week the Southeastern Conference held its annual Spring meetings in Destin, Florida.  It gave coaches and administrators a chance to unwind before preparations really get into full swing for the upcoming football season, which is now less than three months away.

We’ve learned that Tennessee’s opening game will get a noon kickoff (11 a.m. Central) in Nashville when the Vols face off with Virginia. Nissan Stadium will likely feel like sitting on the surface of the sun but hey, what TV wants (hello, ESPN), TV gets. The Vols game two weeks later in Gainesville will have a more reasonable start of 7 p.m.

But back to the meetings. Josh Heupel met with reporters and spoke about his program as he enters his third season as Tennessee’s head coach. Coming off an 11-win season in which UT beat Florida, Alabama, and LSU, Heupel knows that UT won’t be able to sneak up on opponents anymore, and that appears to be fine with him.

“Expectations will never be higher (outside) than they are in the building,” Heupel said. “It’s a great time to be a Vol. It’s been fun building this. When we first arrived (there was) a lot of uncertainty surrounding the program with so many things that we were trying to navigate. The foundation that we’ve laid, how we’ve competed, (and the) players what they’ve done, what they’ve continued to do… there’s a lot of excitement.”

Following the Vols’ impressive win in the Orange Bowl against Clemson, Heupel has been pleased with the way that his team has stayed consistently motivated.

“We got back in January and this group’s been very purposeful in the way that it’s worked,” said Heupel. “How they’re doing everything outside of football has continued to heighten and doing it at a better level. What they’re doing inside of the game is really good. Spring ball, I thought was as physical, as competitive as we’ve had.”

Tennessee gets a big-time boost out of the gate with 6th-year quarterback Joe Milton replacing Hendon Hooker, who is now with the Detroit Lions.

“Really excited about what he’s (Milton) done, man,” said Heupel. “He had a great spring. I think he’s continued to refine himself as a quarterback, his fundamentals. Really impressed with what he did as far as pocket movement during the spring, really accurate with the football. Got to have a great summer. Anticipate him doing that and helping us go win some ball games in the fall.”

One of the big topics of conversation in SEC circles is future scheduling. With the inclusion of Texas and Oklahoma in 2024, the SEC needs to decide whether to stay at eight in conference games or bump that up to nine.

Heupel said, “There’s so many things that everybody’s trying to balance, you know what I mean? From schedules that are already preset to how we navigate that space. At the end of the day in this conference, you come to this conference because you want to compete and play against the best every Saturday. You love those big games. Certainly, when you’re playing a conference opponent, you’re playing that type of game.”

Should the SEC stay at eight games, it is likely that would mean that teams have one permanent rival and play the other seven teams every other year. The Vols would no longer play Alabama on an annual basis, as the Tide would be matched up with Auburn.

“The Alabama game… it’s a huge game. It’s an historic rival for our program,” Heupel said. “I think one of the things that’s unique at Tennessee, from probably my playing career, is the number of opponents that different generations of fans will point to as the game. We don’t have a trophy game. In-state, Vandy. Kentucky, border war. Georgia, Florida, Alabama. Those are all big games for our fan base. But the Alabama game’s been the one that’s probably been as longstanding as any of them, and it’s a huge part of our schedule and the tradition of Tennessee football… I want to play the best games that we possibly can every single year, you know what I mean? The biggest and best brands.”