By Mark Nagi
The bad times… oh there have been a few.
From Lane Kiffin’s midnight run to Derek Dooley’s Orange Pants to Butch Jones’s Champions of Life and to Jeremy Pruitt’s COVID sleeve that covered everything but his eyeballs, Tennessee’s football program has had its share of cringe-worthy moments and seemingly constant embarrassment.
I could keep going with this theme, but like Mark McGwire, I’m not here to talk about the past.
But that at least gives you some background.
The 2022 Tennessee Volunteers aren’t nationally ranked to start the season. They ended up just outside the AP’s preseason Top 25. But this is a team that has the potential to cause opponents a lot of problems.
When people look at the Vols, the first thing they typically talk about is Josh Heupel’s fast-paced offensive system. Some people consider it to be a gimmick. Whatever it is, it’s tough to stop. In 2021 the Vols were 7th in scoring offense with an average of 39.2 yards per game. They were also 9th in total offense with 474.9 yards per contest.
And there’s no reason to believe that they’ll take a major step backward in 2022.
Their quarterback, Hendon Hooker, is coming off a season in which he threw 31 touchdown passes with only three interceptions. Tennessee has a running back in Jabari Small that gained 796 rushing yards in 2021, and likely cracks 1000 this season. The Vols top pass-catching option, Cedric Tillman, had a monster 2021 season, with 64 catches for 1081 yards and 12 scores.
The defense has a bunch of potential NFL talent. Linebacker Jeremy Banks led the Vols with 128 tackles a year ago. Defensive ends Tyler Baron and Byron Young are going to be nightmares for opposing offensive lines.
The schedule makers weren’t that bad to the Vols either. Yes they have a tricky road affair against Pittsburgh in Week 2, but Tennessee gets rivals Florida and Alabama at home. Eight of the Vols 12 regular season games will be played inside the state’s borders.
You put all of these things together, and yes, it could be a very good season on Rocky Top.
That said, there is always the fear among many Tennessee fans that the worst is going to happen. There’s a popular meme from the NBC sitcom, The Office. Lead character Michael Scott (played brilliantly by Steve Carell), is talking about going back into the dating pool. He says, “No question about it. I am ready to get hurt again.”
I don’t see that happening, and I’ll tell you why. Tennessee has had competent leadership at all levels in the UT athletics department. Between Heupel and athletics director Danny White, Vols football is on as firm a setting as it has been since the glory days of the mid to late 90s and Phillip Fulmer and Doug Dickey ran the show.
So, my advice? Enjoy the ride. Tennessee football is through the worst.