Tennessee’s Athletics Comeback

By Mark Nagi

Wow… has this been fun or what!

Tennessee’s football program is currently ranked in the top 10 in the country, something that hasn’t happened since 2016. The Vols also sit at 4-0 with 2 wins over ranked opponents, something that hasn’t happened since 2006.

After four games the Vols sit atop the nation in total offense, racking up 559.2 yards per game. They sit fourth in the country in scoring with 48.5 points per game.

Quarterback Hendon Hooker is a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate. He’s completed nearly 72% of his passes with 8 touchdown passes and no interceptions. He’s also rushed for 175 yards and 3 scores.

Cedric Tillman, Jalin Hyatt and Bru McCoy have emerged as a three-headed monster for opposing secondaries. Jaylen Wright and Jabari Small are a powerhouse 1-2 punch in the backfield.

Tennessee’s defense is getting better too, coming up with big plays at key times. Linebacker Aaron Beasley leads the Vols in tackles with 26. Byron Young already has 10 quarterback hits this season.

That’s the stats. The intangibles stay with the same theme. Tennessee football is back on the scene.

ESPN College GameDay was in Knoxville for the Tennessee/Florida game. The Vols 38-33 win over the Gators had 5.571 million viewers, the most of any college football game in Week 4. Neyland Stadium looked gorgeous for “Checker Neyland,” and a national television audience saw over 100,000 fans pack the old barn.

That experience surely did wonders for recruits in attendance, as well as prospects that have yet to give Tennessee a serious look.

20 months ago, the dismissal of head coach Jeremy Pruitt and “cough cough” retirement of athletics director Phillip Fulmer was supposed to set Tennessee football back another five years at least.

Instead, head coach Josh Heupel and athletics director Danny White have turned the Vols into a program to be reckoned with once again.

As fans, you shouldn’t expect a team to win a conference title every season. That’s unrealistic. Even Alabama doesn’t do that. But what you should want is for your team to at least be in the conversation.

Think about Tennessee’s glory days of the 1990s and 2000s. Yes, they went a ridiculous 45-5 from 1995-1999, with two conference championships and a national title. But to me, the most impressive thing was how for most of those two decades they had a reasonable expectation to be in the mix for a division title. They won five of those and finished second even more times.

That was the type of consistency that a football program strives for, and that only happens with stability in an athletics program across the board. Tennessee didn’t have that stability for most of the late 2000s and 2010s, and the results showed in most of the sports on campus.

But today, not only is football on the rise, but men’s basketball just won the SEC tournament for the first time since 1979, the Lady Vols basketball program is a Final Four contender, and the baseball team swept SEC championships. The non-revenue sports are holding their own too.

People long for the good old days. That’s natural.

Tennessee fans need to realize that the good old days… are happening right now.