Tennessee’s wild turnaround bumps against reigning champion Georgia’s dominant run in epic SEC clash

Maybe the default reaction explaining Tennessee at the moment should be a shoulder shrug and palms to the sky. After all the years, all the bungled hires and strategies, all the futile chases, all the egos, who knew this was going to happen so fast?

It’s OK not to have a clear answer.

“I don’t think anybody saw this, this quick,” said Phillip Fulmer, Tennessee’s former coach and athletic director who had a hand in a little bit of it all over the years.

What that I-don’t-know gesture lacks in depth, it makes up for in accuracy. Tennessee is No. 1 headed into an epic matchup Saturday with No. 3 Georgia in the SEC on CBS Game of the Week (3:30 p.m. ET). The Volunteers have achieved that lofty spot for only the second time in the middle of a season since 1939. Their accomplishments are so thoroughly established, a loss in Athens, Georgia, might not even matter in those final College Football Playoff Rankings.

Just don’t try to explain it.

“It takes four or five years to build a program,” Tennessee AD Danny White said. “That’s still the case. We’ve got a great ranking and we’re having a great season, but you don’t rebuild a program in 18 months.”

Maybe not, but don’t tell anyone outside White’s office. White hired Josh Heupel in the aftermath of firing Jeremy Pruitt. That was Jan. 27, 2021. Slightly over 21 months later, Tennessee is the best team in the country. At least that’s what the CFP Selection Committee thinks. Beat Georgia and that assertion might remove all doubt.

“The hunger that we’re seeing [from the fans] manifests itself,” White said. “The Alabama game, on the field after, there’s grown men bawling, crying. There was the emotion of, ‘We’re not stuck in purgatory anymore. Win or lose, we’ve got a chance.'”

There are turnarounds and there are turnarounds. This one came swiftly and smartly. That Alabama game on Oct. 15 changed everything. The result suggested the Vols can score their way to a championship. It’s been done before.

Tennessee sports the nation’s most explosive offense. There is an edge-of-our-seat factor to a unit that runs a play every 3.58 seconds. Quarterback Hendon Hooker went from Virginia Tech castoff to Heisman Trophy contender.

The defense may have proven it’s arrived holding Kentucky to six points last week, the fewest at Tennessee in an SEC game across the last 14 years. The same defense that is top 10 against the run also struggles against the pass.

Did we say seat-of-your-pants? Tennessee’s best defensive back is now starting for Oklahoma (Key Lawrence). Its best linebacker is killing it for Alabama (Henry To’oto’o). Such is life in the transfer portal, but that’s starting not to matter. Missing its three best secondary players Saturday, the Vols got after Wildcats QB Will Levis, a high NFL Draft prospect. Levis was sacked four times and held 98 yards passing.

It took a couple of outsiders to do all of it. White is the son of legendary Notre Dame and Duke AD Kevin White. Heupel had rebuilt his resume and career after being fired at Oklahoma, his alma mater, in 2014. These are their first Power Five jobs as coach and AD.

So, there was an of-course-he-did factor when White eventually hired Heupel away from UCF. They both were in the same positions with the Knights from 2018-20. White says he came away with a vision of Heupel after a 2.5-hour intense meeting with the team leaders after Pruitt’s departure.

“It never occurred to me to hire him,” White told CBS Sports. “I never even psychologically got to that point. My mind never really let me get to the point of bringing him up. At some point during those conversations with players, we started to consider, ‘Wait a minute; he would be the best option .’ That was a dark moment for me. I knew it would create more disruption for those [UCF] players.”

Somehow it clicked, quickly. Heupel had a calming influence. This was a project that required special members. Tim Banks was hired as defensive coordinator at his sixth stop in 15 years. Alex Golesh had been Heupel’s offensive coordinator at UCF in 2021. That unit finished No. 2 nationally in total offense.

Heupel now might be frontrunner for national coach of the year. Don’t ask how. Heupel inherited Hooker. The quarterback had been waking up at 5 am in the offseason at Virginia Tech and throwing with managers to hone his game. Then COVID-19 hit in 2020, and everyone’s game was impacted.

“When I got to Tennessee, I got back into the flow of things,” Hooker told CBS Sports. “I was able to have full access to the film room. I was in the facility eight hours a day watching film. Even if no other player was in there, I was in there trying to figure out what’s going on.”

In the spring of 2021, Hooker said he and then-roommate Velus Jones would be the last ones in the facility. A list of their goals was posted on a wall as the thing they saw before walking out of their house: getting to the Senior Bowl, NFL Draft, SEC Championship Game and national championship.

“Velus got a lot of those goals out of the way,” Hooker said of Jones, now in his rookie season as a defensive back with the Chicago Bears. “I want to do the same.”

Hooker has a lot of help in the wide receiver room, now one of the best in the country. Previously injured Cedric Tillman returned last week to join transfer Bru McCoy and Jalin Hyatt, the latter of whom leads the country in touchdown catches (14).

The turnaround trend isn’t new, just reenergized, reimagined and much more urgent. That’s why Texas A&M hired Jimbo Fisher for better or worse with his at-the-time unique 10-year deal. Mel Tucker, who got his own 10-year contract, pulled off the biggest turnaround in the country last year at Michigan State. USC is that “it” team in 2022 as Lincoln Riley continues his first season. LSU is hoping for its own turnaround. If it beats Alabama on Saturday, LSU will control its own destiny in the SEC West.

“Everywhere, there is this need to want to see results,” Kelly said. “Our society is about that. There is no patience for long-term plans anymore.”

The “phenomenon” emerged at the turn of this century. ADs everywhere took notice when Bob Stoops (Oklahoma), Jim Tressel (Ohio State) and Urban Meyer (Florida) each won national championships in their second seasons; it all happened in an eight-year span. Stoops may have “begun” that trend 22 years ago.

It is possible to draw a direct line from Oklahoma to Tennessee. Heupel was the quarterback for those 2000 Sooners who went from 7-5 in Stoops’ first season in 1999 to undefeated national champions. Oklahoma was coming off its worst three-year run in history (1996-98) when Stoops arrived from Florida. Like at UT now, the talent on that OU team was largely unknown.

Sooners WR Antwone Savage went from little-known freshman out of Albany, Georgia, to career year (50 catches). Linebacker Torrance Marshall went from two different JUCOs to MVP of the Orange Bowl. Oklahoma was Heupel’s third school. He came back from an ACL and was recruited out of Snow College, a Utah JUCO, by then-offensive coordinator Mike Leach.

In 2000, Heupel became the Heisman runner-up and AP Player of the Year.

“There are parallels,” Heupel said. “Talking about a program that was fragmented in some ways when we first got here. I think a clear vision of everybody jumping in the boat together and pulling as hard as they can. This group continues to grow and continues to get better.”

There is even a parallel between Georgia and Tennessee. Kirby Smart went from 8-5 in his first season with the Bulldogs in 2016 to losing in the College Football Playoff National Championship a season later. Mark Richt’s continuity over 15 years allowed Smart to start with a foundation. Heupel had to dig out from under a losing culture and an NCAA investigation.

Today, the transfer portal and NIL have been the biggest factors. The quick turnarounds put pressure on the likes of Steve Sarkisian, who hasn’t gotten it done yet in Year 2 at Texas. At Tennessee, NIL is a huge factor — if not now then soon. Spyre Sports Group is a Knoxville-based collective that has signed incoming five-star Tennessee QB Nico Iamaleava to a multimillion-dollar NIL deal.

This was anything but a quick turnaround at Tennessee if you count back more than two seasons. The program had been wandering in the wilderness for a while. Even worse than Auburn’s power-broker meddling, Tennessee fans were running the show for a while. Their meddling costs them more than an AD (John Currie) and coach (Greg Schiano). It costs Tennessee credibility.

Instability reigned. Before that, it was Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley. Nothing — not a person, a philosophy or a future — seemed to stick.

The “answer” was Pruitt, a former 247Sports recruiter of the year with three national championships on his resume as an assistant. Pruitt lasted three years, going 16-19 and leaving as the centerpiece of a major recruiting scandal.

White pointed out the university has been proactive in the investigation. The AD (Fulmer) and the coach (Pruitt) during much of the alleged wrongdoing have been replaced. Only a handful of Vols on the roster, Pruitt said proudly, were those “that I didn’t bring in.”

“I think the instability was on its way out, to be honest with you,” Fulmer said when Heupel arrived. “The screw up, whatever it was with Pruitt didn’t slow us down.”

“Recruits and the college football world in general have come to realize it’s not something that is going to destroy our program. Far from it,” White concluded.

The subject isn’t even mentioned around the program anymore.

“The first day that I took the job, I stood up there [and said], ‘This is what you envision. This is a journey,'” Heupel said. “You understand the type of team you want to build.”

Tennessee’s best chance hinges Saturday on that No. 1 offense (553 yards per game). Heupel’s influences are obvious — Leach and Art Briles. One (Leach) the master of the Air Raid; the other (Briles) master of up tempo.

The wide splits by the Tennessee receivers force the defense to make a choice: Either go out to the perimeter to cover the receivers or load the box. Smother the receivers, and Heupel will be patient enough to run the ball. Load the box, and Hooker has the arm talent to throw the quick out or a quick strike over the top.

“It pulls you away from the box,” Smart said. There’s no half in, half out. You’re either all in, or you’re all out.”

“They call routes where the defensive back can’t win,” said Hooker’s father Alan, a former college quarterback. “Some folks say it’s the system, it’s backyard. No, it’s intelligent football. You can’t be robotic. That’s what makes it so fun to watch.”

Never mind if Iamaleava never pans out as the next prodigy. Tennessee has already sent a message to recruits: You’re either part of this turnaround, or you’re going to get run over by it.

“You definitely can tell by body language [of the defense],” Tennessee offensive tackle Jerome Carvin said of the Vols’ tempo. “Body language says a lot. You see hands on hips. You see them gasping for air. It’s time to rock ‘n’ roll. We’re going to keep rolling. We’re going to push even faster.”

White doesn’t believe in regular meetings with his coaches. He leaves them alone to coach and recruit. If they need something, the coaches can pick up the phone.

But there was a moment after the Alabama game last month when all the problems that had been old Tennessee drifted away. White and Heupel locked eyes.

“It was kind of like, ‘Wow,'” White recalled. “Winning the game was definitely worthy of a ‘wow.'”

All that was lacking was a shoulder shrug and palms to the sky.

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