Clay Travis’ Starting 11: The Vols Are (Maybe) Back

I’m just back from Knoxville where I spent an incredible weekend with my 12 year old for the Florida-Tennessee game. It was great to meet many of you and Neyland Stadium was absolutely electric as Tennessee beat Florida for only the second time in the past 18 years.

I understand some people reading this will talk down the victory, but for Tennessee fans beating Florida has become a tremendous measuring stick. Over the past 15 years, prior to this game, Tennessee was an unbelievable 1-29 against Florida and Alabama.


Losing 15 in a row to Alabama is brutal, but, truth be told, no one is beating Alabama so that lessens the sting somewhat.

But Florida?

Tennessee has really had some epic choke jobs against the Gators over the years. Even bad Florida teams have often trounced the Vols.

So for Josh Heupel to get this win in year two and enter the bye week with the Vols ranked in the national top ten is about as perfect of an opening season as he could ask for.

I’m going to write about Anthony Richardson below, but the most underrated quarterback in college football has to be Hendon Hooker. And what Josh Heupel has done with Hooker is nothing short of incredible. Since he transferred from Virginia Tech, Hooker has started 15 games for Tennessee.

In those 15 games he’s thrown 38 touchdown passes and only three interceptions. He’s also rushed for eight more touchdowns. So Hooker has posted 46 touchdowns in his 15 games with Heupel as his coach.

Against Florida Hooker was 22 of 28 for 349 yards passing with two touchdowns and ran for 112 yards with an additional rushing touchdown.

Over the next six weeks Hooker will go to LSU, get Alabama at home, then Kentucky at home and then finish it off with Georgia on the road. So in a little over a month Tennessee will play three top ten teams, including the number one and two teams in the country, essentially, and toss in LSU on the road for good measure.

We’ll see then what Hooker and the Vol ceiling really is, but for now a nine win regular season for Josh Heupel in year two feels eminently doable. And Hendon Hooker, if he plays like he did against Florida against all this elite competition in the next several weeks, has a chance to put himself in the Heisman conversation.

Here was my reaction immediately after Tennessee survived a hail mary attempt by Florida, which would have been one of the worst defeats imaginable.

I haven’t been this optimistic about Tennessee football since the Georgia hail mary win that took the Vols to 5-0 under Butch Jones.

And we all know how that turned out.

So I’m trying to pump the breaks here, but part of me wants to just say to hell with it and go 120 on the Heupel train.

Okay, on to the Starting 11.

1. Ohio State crushed Wisconsin and it seems clear the Buckeyes are going to have only two tests on their schedule at Penn State and at home against Michigan to finish the season.

The Spartans descent back into mediocrity this season — which will be discussed below — means we may need to break out the three way tiebreak scenarios for the Big Ten East and also pushes into stark relief the continuing absurdity of college football divisions.

The three best teams in the Big Ten, at least right now, all play in the same division.

So why shouldn’t two of these teams get to play in the title game?

It’s just completely nonsensical that divisions still exist anywhere in college football.

2. How do we assess Texas A&M at this point after the oink off the goalpost win over Arkansas?

First, for Arkansas fans, I don’t even know what to say on that kick. I’ve truly never seen this happen before in football, for the ball to literally hit the top of the upright. This is one reason I’ve been in favor of extending the goalposts as high as possible, by the way.

Because how hard would that field goal have been to call correctly if the kick had been like two feet higher and moving at the same trajectory? Is it good or no good? We know it was no good because it hit the goal post, but two feet higher and we are arguing for the rest of eternity about whether the kick was in or out.

And I don’t envy the officials standing beneath the goal posts figuring that one out.

But I think Arkansas was the better team on Saturday and couldn’t close the deal.

The Razorbacks, to me, feel like a 9-3 team this year, which should put them around the top 15.

What about A&M though?

Jimbo has rebounded from the awful App State game to post two straight wins, Miami and Arkansas, that have helped to settle things, at least a bit, in Aggieland.

Now comes a big one against Mississippi State, which feels like the ultimate trap game scenario. A trip to Starkville is nestled right between top ten games against Arkansas and Alabama.

Which is why I like the Bulldogs, early call here, to pull off the upset win.

I still feel like A&M is an 8-4 team this year.

But boy the heat on Jimbo would be scalding if that kick had been one foot to the left.

Because then three straight SEC losses would have loomed as stark possibilities.

Now get a win at State and no matter what happens at Alabama and things have calmed down for Jimbo immensely.

3. Should Oklahoma fans be nervous based on last night’s loss to Kansas State?

I think so, yeah.

There’s a great line from Ernest Hemingway from “The Sun Also Rises,” on how a character went broke. “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”

I think it sums up college football programs perfectly.

College football programs descend gradually, but we see it all happen suddenly because there are so few games to judge a program on. One day your team is rolling and then suddenly they get crushed. Well, that crushing didn’t happen overnight, it was a gradual decline. But it seems like an overnight collapse.

I know Kansas State has had Oklahoma’s number, at least to the extent that anyone has had Oklahoma’s number in the Big 12, for a few years now, but last night Kansas State came into Norman and played Oklahoma dead even. This wasn’t a fluke result.

The natural reaction from some is to blame Brent Venables.

But the truth is Lincoln Riley’s program had already started to stumble a bit before he left. In fact, that’s one reason I think he left. (The other, of course, was he didn’t want to compete in the SEC grind.)

In his final two years in the Big 12 Lincoln Riley was 13-4.

That sounds great, but the problem was in his first three years he went 24-3 and finished first in the Big 12 each year. So that slippage was already beginning before he left.

Now Brent Venables is at Oklahoma and it’s too quick to judge him on the culture he’ll create, but this feels like the Lincoln Riley slippage effect in action here.

Can Oklahoma still win the Big 12?

Of course.

But this is a sign that the rest of the Big 12 is not very far behind the Sooners and that Oklahoma may be in for a bit of a rude awakening in the SEC.

Also, you want to know why college football is impossible to predict? Last week Kansas State could only put up ten points against Tulane and lost at home.

This week?

They go on the road and put up 41 against Oklahoma.

Good luck pulling off that double moneyline winner in back-to-back weeks.

4. USC came down to earth in week four, how good are the Trojans?

Speaking of Lincoln Riley, his Trojans were very fortunate to get the win over Oregon State late last night.

Now the transfer quarterback threw the touchdown to the transfer wide receiver to get the win with one minute left so Lincoln Riley, and NIL, deserve credit for that, but the Beavers played the Trojans dead even on Saturday night.

I still feel like the biggest battle of the Pac 12 season will be USC on the road at Utah, but last night in Corvallis was the first time USC hasn’t looked like a playoff team.

And I’d circle that Washington State game on October 8th too, by the way, which feels like the ultimate trap game for the Trojans.

If I had to pick the Pac 12 champ right now, I’d go with Utah.

5. Texas and Miami: Not Back

The Blue Raiders pulled off one of the biggest upsets in college football this year with a 14 point win as a 25 point-ish underdog on the road at Miami.

The U is not back, at least not yet, under Mario Cristobal.

And Texas is not back either after Texas Tech spoiled the year two narrative arc of Steve Sarkisian. After the Alabama loss, Texas was back. Now after the Texas Tech loss, Texas is not back.

So on the are they back watch list, we have the Vols, maybe back, and Miami and Texas definitely not back.

6. Gator quarterback Anthony Richardson posted one of the best college football performances I’ve ever seen in person.

There has been a ton of chirping at me after I compared Richardson to Vince Young and Cam Newton in the wake of his performance against Utah.

Yesterday on the road at Neyland Stadium, in one of the most raucous and deafening road environments I’ve ever seen, Richardson passed for 453 yards and ran for another 62, posting over 500 yards of offense to go along with four touchdowns.

Which was very Vince Young and Cam Newton-like.

In fact, it’s nearly impossible for a college quarterback to play better than Anthony Richardson did on Saturday.

Now you can rightly point out that Tennessee doesn’t have great cornerbacks and safeties, but the Vols are fairly stout up front and took away, for the most part, Florida’s run game, holding the Gators to 141 yards on 42 carries. Indeed, Richardson himself ran the ball 17 times for a workmanlike 62 yards.

But time after time in known passing situations, Richardson came up big, converting many third and longs through the air and managing to go five for six on fourth down too. (Combine the Gators two fourth down stops on the Vols and Florida went 8 for 9 when it came to winning fourth down. Without that, this game is a blowout.)

Now make no mistake, Richardson wasn’t very good against Kentucky or South Florida. In fact, in both games he was awful. But if Richardson continues to grow going forward, I believe he’s going to be a first round NFL draft pick this spring.

I really do.

He just has the talent — and the ceiling for that talent — that almost no quarterbacks in college football have.

And if he stays on this growth curve at least one NFL team is going to be unable to resist taking him in the first round this spring.

Now, for the Gator fans out there, why in the world did Billy Napier wait until week four to let Richardson truly run the football? Where was this effort against Kentucky?

7. Do we buy Clemson as a elite national title contender?

I don’t.

In fact, I’m not sure Clemson will win the ACC this year.

The conference feels wide open and Dave Clawson’s Wake Forest team almost pulled off what would have been an epic upset.

Above we talked about Oklahoma and the slippage in their program. I think the same thing is true with Clemson. Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State still get the VIP pass. But Clemson has to stay outside the velvet rope for now.

By the way, I’ll be on the road with Big Noon Kickoff this weekend at NC State-Clemson so we should get another good read on the Tigers in that one.

I’m looking forward to the trip.

8. Minnesota absolutely dominated Michigan State.

This game may have slipped under your radar, but the Golden Gophers went on the road and obliterated Michigan State 34-7, posting over 500 yards of offense in the process.

We all know Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan have given us reason to be impressed so far this fall in the Big Ten, but Minnesota is 4-0 now and has beaten every team by 27 or more.

Thanks to the lopsided Big Ten divisions, Minnesota only plays one current top 25 team all season, at Penn State on October 22nd.

So look out, we’ve got a Big Ten lurker no one has been paying attention to at all.

The Golden Gophers may be headed to the Big Ten title game this year.

9. How does Vegas assess the top teams in the land as we end September?

Well, here are the top ten teams based on national title odds:

Georgia +175
Alabama +200
Ohio State +230
USC +1600
Clemson +1600
Michigan +3000
Utah +6000
Tennessee +8000
Penn State +8000
Washington +8000

So we’ve got three top ten SEC teams, three from the Big Ten, three from the Pac 12, which I think would surprise some people, and just one from the ACC.

And no one from the Big 12 at all.

Now I get that national title odds are implicated by the conference you’re in, if Georgia and Alabama are this highly ranked then it’s hard for any SEC team, for instance, to have that good of national title odds, but I do think it’s interesting that the ACC and the Big 12 are minimally involved in the title picture and we haven’t even officially ended September yet.

10. The Outkick Top Ten

Reminder, and this will probably be the last time this season we need the reminder now that conference play is underway in earnest, I only rank the teams based on what we’ve seen from them on the field so far.

And I give added weight to road and neutral site wins early in the season.

With that in mind, here’s my top ten:

1. Georgia
2. Penn State
3. Ohio State
4. Tennessee
5. Washington
6. Alabama
7. USC
8. Kentucky
9. Minnesota
10. Kansas

Rejoice, Jayhawk fans, yes, I really have you in my top ten, I never thought the day would come, but you’ve impressed me a great deal so far this year.

And stop chirping me, Bama fans, you were lucky to beat a two loss Texas team.

Take care of Arkansas, A&M and Tennessee over the next three weeks and you’ll be back up alongside Georgia and Ohio State in my rankings.

11. SEC power rankings 1-14

1. Georgia
2. Tennessee
3. Alabama
4. Kentucky
5. Ole Miss
6. Texas A&M
7. Arkansas
8. LSU
9. Mississippi State
10. Florida
11. South Carolina
12. Vanderbilt
13. Auburn
14. Missouri

Okay, hope y’all have great weekends.

And I’ll see you in Clemson on Saturday.

Written by Clay Travis

OutKick founder, host and author. He's presently banned from appearing on both CNN and ESPN because he’s too honest for both.

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