Tennessee Football is Back

By Mark Nagi

Back on October 15, one of the best regular season college football games of all time was played at Neyland Stadium. Tennessee beat Alabama in a 52-49 thriller. The win ended a 15 game losing streak to the Crimson Tide, and sparked a wild celebration as fans stormed Shields-Watkins Field for the first time since the 1998 Florida game.

That season, of course, Tennessee would go on to win the national championship.

The Vols have a chance to do it again.

This column is titled “Tennessee Football is Back.” We’ve seen false starts before, especially in 2015 and 2016 when the Vols fell short of expectations.

It just feels different this time.

Each of these teams have talent. The 2016 team alone had six players taken in the following spring’s NFL Draft. But the 2022 Vols have a massive upgrade on the coaching staff.

Josh Heupel’s scheme and overwhelming confidence in that system puts the current iteration of Tennessee miles ahead of what the Vols did under Butch Jones, a maddingly insecure leader that couldn’t succeed in crunch time.

Case in point, the Alabama game. There were multiple moments in the fourth quarter when adversity hit the Vols. They could have laid down and accepted their fate. In previous years they almost certainly would have given up. Instead, Heupel and his team didn’t show a smidgen of panic. They stuck with the game plan, and it paid off.

How often have we seen Tennessee football teams shrink from the moment during this decade of a half of dysfunction? 2015 Oklahoma. 2019 BYU. Pretty much every game against Florida. I won’t throw Alabama in there because the Vols have only played the Tide close in two games before this year’s victory.

But this is the dawn of a new day.

And the confidence, the swagger, the overall good vibes aren’t simply with the football program. The men’s basketball team just won the SEC tournament. The women’s basketball team is a legitimate Final Four contender this season. Non-revenue sports like soccer, swimming and tennis are winning trophies. The Tennessee athletics department was waiting on football, the sport that drives the engine to get their act together. And they have.

What Heupel has done over the past 21 months has proved that you don’t need a long, drawn out rebuild. Remember when Derek Dooley said his first year at Tennessee was really “year zero?” Remember when Butch Jones would make pre-emptive excuses for his team?

Those days are done.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that Tennessee wins the Southeastern Conferences. They’ve got to upset top-ranked Georgia in a couple of weeks to get to the SEC title game. Also, I know that the Vols almost always beat Kentucky, but the Wildcats will be nationally ranked when they head to Neyland Stadium on Saturday night. They have a quarterback that impresses NFL scouts. The Wildcats will be coming off a bye and would like nothing better than to ruin their biggest rival’s season. Those two games could potentially each be losses if things don’t go Tennessee’s way.

But remember, the Vols were not even nationally ranked to start the season, and now they sit in position to make the college football playoff. Tennessee is back in the national conversation for all the right reasons for the first time in a long time.

Isn’t it fun?

Tennessee fans should enjoy it while it lasts. We are living in the good old days.