HOOVER, Ala. — Tennessee coach Josh Heupel tried to say the right things Tuesday at SEC media days.
He talked up the storied history of Rocky Top. He name-dropped Peyton Manning. He referenced the iconic Power T logo at least four different times.
And then he was asked about the gap between what Tennessee is now and what it expects to be. That’s when Heupel looked out of his league — like he was back in the AAC at UCF instead of leading a former SEC heavyweight.
“If you go by wins and losses, right, we’re not where we need to be, for sure,” Heupel said. “But the only time constraints you put on that are ones you put on yourself.”
If that were true, Jeremy Pruitt (16-19) would still be in Knoxville, regardless of the possible NCAA recruiting violations. Or Butch Jones (34-27) would still be there, building champions of life brick by brick. Or Derek Dooley (15-21) would still be there, strolling the Neyland Stadium sidelines in his bright orange pants.
But they’re not, because the Volunteers’ rabid fanbase is impatient and because the job is no longer what it used to be.
When Tennessee and Florida were sparring atop the league in the ’90s, the Volunteers had advantages that no longer exist. Three notable nearby teams (Alabama, Georgia and Clemson) were down. Now they’re three of the top five programs in the sport and able to dominate Tennessee’s recruiting footprint.
Heupel was right to bring up former Tennessee players Tee Martin, Alvin Kamara, Reggie White and Charles Davis alongside Manning. But today’s Vols and recruits are old enough to remember only one of them playing in Knoxville: Kamara, the Saints’ All-Pro running back whom Tennessee criminally underused (only 1,294 career rushing yards).
That’s the challenge Heupel faces. The program he inherits has a championship pedigree but hasn’t finished inside the top 10 in two decades. It doesn’t matter how famous your logo is if Alabama and Georgia keep lapping you in recruiting and seven-loss seasons continue to mount. The expectations don’t match the reality.
Then again, Heupel went through this same thing as a player. Oklahoma went six consecutive seasons without a bowl appearance before Heupel quarterbacked the Sooners past Florida State for the 2000 national title.
“There’s certainly challenges we face as a program,” Heupel said, “but there’s great opportunities, and that’s why I came to Tennessee.”
Heupel said the same thing about his decision to leave the Knights. He called UCF “a special place” with “a great future ahead of it.” But Tennessee was a rare opportunity he couldn’t pass up.
Except the landscape has changed since Heupel changed jobs in January. His new job will soon become worse than his old one.
Assuming the College Football Playoff expands to 12 teams in the next few years, UCF should become an annual contender. The Knights have the facilities, recruiting footprint and recent success to remain one of the AAC’s top teams. Most years, the AAC winner will be one of the top six conference champions, which would mean a guaranteed playoff berth under the current proposal.
Compare that feasible route to the one Heupel will have at Tennessee, where Florida, Georgia and ‘Bama are on the schedule every year.
If Heupel is going to rebuild the Vols into what they believe they can be, he’ll have to progress in ways that didn’t show up in Orlando, where he went from 12-1 to 10-3 to 6-4.
The Knights replaced him with Gus Malzahn, who was 68-35 at Auburn with three wins over Alabama. If you’re betting on whether Heupel will be able to match those numbers in Knoxville, take the under. There’s a reason many UCF fans weren’t sad to see him go.
Heupel said he learned a lot from his time at UCF. He became a better communicator and went through the growing pains that come from being a first-time head coach. He spoke highly of the time he and his family spent in Orlando.
“If we miss one thing,” Heupel said, “it would be the beach that’s 45 minutes away.”
Unless he figures out what has been holding himself and Tennessee back, he’ll end up like Pruitt and Jones and Dooley. With a lot more free time for beach days.
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