Note: All Aggies' "Around the SEC" series will feature stories on all 14 programs in preparation for the 2021 season.
They have to get right once, right?
Since Phillip Fulmer elected to step down in 2008, Tennessee has been looking for its next great coach. The Vols had hope with Lane Kiffin after a 7-6 season, but he bolted for USC in the middle of the night and the city of Knoxville went up in flames.
From Derek Dooley to Butch Jones to Jeremy Pruitt, Tennessee football hasn't been "back" in over a decade. Their quarterback play has been inconsistent since Peyton Manning was selected No. 1 overall.
The highest they've finished in the AP rankings is No. 22.
So yes, Tennessee enters the 2021 season as the 'ugly stepsister' of the SEC. Josh Heupel hopes to change that by December. If anything, he'll fight to make sure the Volunteers are at least respected.
"Everything and anything that you want to do in the game and outside of the game has been done at Tennessee and will be done again," Heupel said Tuesday afternoon at SEC Media Days.
Vols fans might have moaned at the hire when announced in February, but Heupel is no scrum. He has head coaching experience during his three-year run at Central Florida.
During that time, the Golden Knights have finished with two Top 25 finishes — the same amount as Tennessee since 2007.
Heupel, who best is known for winning a national championship for Oklahoma in 2000, has ties to the SEC. He helped Missouri set record numbers with Drew Lock under center for two years and led the league in total offense.
For 25 minutes and change, Heupel spoke of the positives he intends to bring to the Power T program. That starts offensively, primarily at quarterback.
"You look at the last three National Championships offensively, I think every team has averaged over 520 yards on offense," Heupel said.
"This is a quarterback-friendly offense that's going to allow us to play and apply pressure to defenses every single Saturday that we step on the football field."
With a new head coach, there comes an open battle. Jarrett Guarantano headed out west to Washington State. Two former Power 5 starters headed to Rocky Top.
Hendon Hooker from Virginia Tech and Joe Milton from Michigan could be in a battle to win the transfer title. Milton, who finished with 1,194 yards, five touchdowns and six interceptions in three years with the Wolverines, was added by Heupel's staff.
Hooker was recruited by Pruitt before his firing. Both will have to go up against former part-time starters in Harrison Bailey and Brian Maruer.
"Competition is the greatest friend that any coach has. You have to have it in that roo," Heupel said. "It's going to drive the players inside of it when you're not around it."
The first-year coach singled out Milton. Then again, why shouldn't he since it was his call to add him to the roster? Maybe his role in the Big 10 will translate to SEC Country?
That dual-threat ability could go far keep the Vols involved in the game late.
"Joe's got a unique skill set, a strong arm, accurate passer," Heupel said. "I think he's a very bright young man that's picked up on what we've done so far really well. He's talented. He can spread the football field from sideline to sideline and vertically and has a unique skill set with his size and mobility to use his feet as a weapon as well."
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For every transfer that joined the squad in Neyland for the year, another player left.
Leading rusher Eric Gray heads to Heupel's alma mater, as does left tackle Wanya Morris. Star linebacker Henry To'o To'o joined Tennessee's long-time rival in Alabama. Ty Chandler now is in Chapel Hill as the Tar Heels' lead back and Deandre Johnson is down in Miami.
None of that is Heupel's fault, but it is his problem.
Keeping whatever talent he can is beneficial. It's why senior cornerback Alontae Taylor likely is viewed as the new leader for the Vols defense.
“Tennessee is home to me," Taylor said. "I wanted to represent my state so I didn’t want to touch the transfer portal or look into anywhere else. This is where I’m supposed to be. Being a leader on this team and at this university was huge to me.”
Taylor said, "I tried to keep as many people here as I could." Maybe another name that could be a breakout star elected to stay. Maybe it's a new name arriving in Knoxville like wide receiver JaVonta Payton, a transfer from Mississippi State.
Heupel said watching Payton work was natural. They'll need that for whoever is at quarterback, and the experience in Starkville is an added bonus.
"He's explosive. He's got a natural set of hands," Heupel said. "I really feel like he's got an opportunity to compete and earn a spot and be a difference-maker for us this fall."
Heupel left the podium with questions still surrounding the program. The biggest one could be how long will he last before getting the pink slip or leaving for another school.
Since Fulmer, only Jones has lasted long enough to see his first recruiting class graduate.
Mediocrity isn't a fad in Tennessee, it's a standard now. It's been one for over a decade and could be one for a decade more.
There's much unknown with Heupel as he enters the biggest conference in college football. Then again, there's was much unknown when Bob Stoops named him the starter in 1999.
He was a runner-up for the Heisman against Chris Weinke in 2000. Two months later, Heupel got the last laugh when hoisting the Coaches Trophy.
Every step along the way, Heupel earned his keep. Tennessee will follow suit, patiently earning its way back as an SEC contender.
"This is Tennessee," Heupel said. "This is one of the iconic programs in all of college sports, in all of college football. We have an opportunity to celebrate the great traditions while putting a new age approach on it "
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