Josh Heupel – Trick or Treat?

It’s Halloween weekend. Last night the University of Tennessee’s Fort Sanders neighborhood was undoubtedly buzzing with ghosts, vampires and Ted Lassos hustling from one house party to the next. For a long time, the product on the football field at the university has been much scarier than any Stephen King novel. The results so far this year have been a cause for optimism, but the new look Vols are headed for a serious test in Lexington next weekend. Is Heupel’s scrappy band going to be unmasked like a cheap imposter in the back of the Mystery Machine, or will they prove to be the real thing?

There is a serious case to be made that this is the least talented squad Tennessee has fielded in the modern era. It is almost certainly the thinnest at nearly every position. Last offseason’s massive turnover left Heupel with a decimated roster. But rather than employing Derek Dooley’s favorite scapegoat, “attrition,” Heupel has coached and schemed his way into immediate relevance in every game. They hung in til the final bell with the heavyweights in Tuscaloosa a week ago, likely would have bested surprising success Pittsburg had the game come after the quarterback battle had been resolved, and were a few plays or calls away from beating Lane Kiffin’s rebels in an electric Neyland Stadium.

Vol fans are understandably wary of moral victories. For over a decade, inferior coaches have disguised habitual underachievement as moral victories. But it’s hard to deny that something seems different this year. So far, Heupel appears much more like a treat than another cheap trick.

A defense that lost its most talented players last offseason with little behind them is markedly better this year. With little depth, it has performed well enough to win while also being on the field more than all but two other defenses in all of football. It leads the nation in tackles for loss despite being totally depleted at the linebacker position, starting a running back who wasn’t even on the team a year ago and a guy who previously never saw the field and missed much of the offseason due to suspension. Matthew Butler has transformed in his fifth year from a totally unremarkable player to an All-SEC performer, and a secondary that couldn’t cover seemingly anything has proven extremely effective this season.

On the other side of the ball, Heupel has taken a quarterback who threw twelve touchdowns and nine interceptions last season to almost the top of the country in quarterback rating. It is a reclamation project worthy of a national award. Quarterback Hendon Hooker has thrown seventeen touchdowns to only two picks this season, while also slicing through defenses with his legs. Heupel’s genius play calling constantly has receivers streaming down field wide open for the huge chunk plays Tennessee has missed since Kamara and Dobbs departed. A

ll of this he has achieved with a receiving corps that saw little utilization by other staffs, a banged up and questionably qualified offensive line, and running backs from the transfer portal.

Kentucky is not significantly more talented than Tennessee. Stoops is an excellent coach who gets the most out of unheralded players, and next weekend’s contest is at Kroger field. However, Tennessee has an enormous psychological advantage over Kentucky, much like the one Florida enjoys over the Vols. Kentucky has enjoyed one of its best runs in program history during our worst run, and still they’ve only beaten Tennessee three times since Phillip Fulmer retired (the first time.) No Tennessee coach this century has lost to Kentucky and kept his job for more than a year. Look for Heupel’s Vols to get a signature win next weekend in coal country.

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