It wasn’t long ago that Tennessee struggled to garner any kind of headlines that weren’t doom and gloom about the upcoming season. As the ongoing investigation proceeded, and the Vols football team entered fall camp looking to finally turn their focus towards the season.
Well, fast forward to week seven of the season and Tennessee has an opportunity to reintroduce itself to the college football world. Coming off two dominant wins against Missouri and South Carolina, this team has an offensive leader in Hendon Hooker, who has been just what this team needs. Hooker has thrown for 1,063 yards and 13 TDs, with just 1 interception, making him a viable threat to opposing defenses. But it’s not just what he brings on the field that has caught the eye of coaches. His leadership in the team meeting, they way he handles himself inside the facility and his ability to understand what the coaches want from him have led to rave reviews.
Vols head coach Josh Heupel has seen the progress from Hooker and knows he’s only scratching the surface of his potential at Tennessee.
“Confidence, comfort, decision-making, taking care of the football, all that comes with some time on task inside of the offense. Whether it’s check and run-run, check and run-pass, whether it’s RPO [Run-Pass Option] game, whether it’s drop back, better decision making. The more time you have in it, the more comfort you have. The ability to handle and play within himself while we’re playing with tempo, all those things. He’s become a better, more vocal, more ownership on the football field and in the locker with our team as well.”
This offense is capable of catching an opponent off guard pretty quickly. With Velus Jones Jr. moved to the slot position, the staff now has the opossum to keep Cedric Tillman, Javonta Payton and even Jalin Hyatt on the outside. This has given the offense more opportunities to spread the field and even bring Velus Jones out of the backfield, making the defense work hard to keep tabs on every playmaker.
The Vols are still figuring out the running back situation for Saturday night, as Tiyon Evans is questionable with an ankle injury, and they might end up relying on Jabari Small or Len’Neth Whitehead to lead them. I don’t see a reason why this football team cannot have success running the ball against Ole Miss, even without Tiyon. The Rebels gave up 350 yards rushing to Arkansas last weekend, proving why most people don’t trust their defense right now.
On the defensive side for Tennessee, well, it’s going to be a challenge. There’s no softer way to out it, as the Rebels are led by Heisman contender Matt Corral. The Ole Miss offense can beat you at so many spots, especially when you force Corral outside the pocket, giving him the opportunity to make plays on the run. Corral rushed for 94 yards against Arkansas, while the team combined for 324 yards on the day. It almost feels as though he feeds off the pressure, so maybe Tennessee should stick a spy on him Saturday night.
The Vols will be tested on defense Saturday night, more than any other game this season, as they look for ways to contain Corral inside the pocket. As we’ve seen recently, Tennessee is getting more out of their front seven this season than most would’ve expected. They’ve been successful at getting after the quarterback and holding up against the run the past few weeks, but Saturday will present a different obstacle, so the Vols must control the line of scrimmage if they want to win.
But this game is also an opportunity for the fans inside Neyland Stadium to make an impact on the outcome. For the first time since 2017, there will be 102,455 people selling out the stadium, which will lead to a magnificent atmosphere that folks around here have been waiting a while to experience. To be honest, it couldn’t come at a better time for this team and Josh Heupel is excited to see his players’ hard work pay off.
“The environment, what our kids have done on the field, the work that they’ve put in, it’s awesome that our fan base has recognized that. Excited about what our players are doing inside of our program. They’ve built this opportunity. It’s about our preparation and being ready to go play. Can’t wait to see Vol Walk, to see the stadium checkerboarded out. After the ball game last week, when we started talking about this one, talked about, it needs to be a home field advantage. Obviously, Saturday night should be that way. Can’t wait to experience it with our crowd. Looking forward to it.”
This game against 13th ranked Ole Miss presents an opportunity for Tennessee to take a gigantic step in Heupel’s first year at the helm. A win on Saturday night would do wonders for a team that many didn’t think highly of heading into the season, mainly because we didn’t know what to expect. But, as we’ve seen over the past few weeks, it feels as though this team has taken a step in the right direction, but comes the opportunity that this football program has been waiting for.
This is an opportunity for Tennessee to reintroduce themselves to the college football world, a little earlier than some expected.