Rested Vols faces a real test in Heupel’s 2nd season

Neyland Stadium is selling out again and fans are already trying to plan how to paint a visiting stadium orange and white to cap off Tennessee’s regular season.

That’s how things are going for eighth-ranked Tennessee in coach Josh Heupel’s second season.

The real test of the quality of these volunteers this season begins Saturday at 25th LSU.

Next, they host No. 1 Alabama. There’s one last break from the usual Southeastern Conference juggernaut against UT Martin before hosting No. 13 Kentucky, then a trip to Athens to play defending national champion and No. 2 Georgia.

At a university where the men’s basketball team won the SEC Tournament title in Marchwomen’s basketball reached its first Sweet 16 since 2016 and the baseball team spent much of the season ranked number oneit’s time for the football program to start impacting campus.

Heupel says success breeds more success at every level.

“The passion of our fan base is obviously felt by our football program, but it’s felt by everyone,” Heupel said. “There’s a ton of excitement surrounding Knoxville, the state of Tennessee, and Vol Nation. … When things are going well, your logo is in front of everyone all year, 365 days a year.

To be classy at all, let alone in the top 10, didn’t seem possible at the end of January 2021. Heupel had just been hired shortly after the university’s chancellor announced that she had fired her predecessor and nine other people for “shocking” recruiting violations.. The Vols went 16-19 in Jeremy Pruitt’s three seasons.

“The energy is different from what I had when I got inside the building,” Heupel said. “You can feel it, and it’s because of the atmosphere that’s been created in all of the sports.”

Tennessee is 10-6 since Heupel took over, and he’s the first coach since the AP Top 25 began in 1936 to beat a top-20 team on the road in each of his first two seasons.

Quarterback Hendon Hooker, a player Heupel persuaded to stay after transferring from Virginia Tech, helped Heupel get the Vols back on track. Hooker threw for 31 touchdowns with three interceptions and 2,945 yards last season.

Now Hooker is leading the nation’s best offense with 559.2 yards per game and the fourth-best unit with 48.4 points per game. He’s averaging 298.2 yards per game with eight touchdowns and no interceptions with three touchdown passes this season.

He threw for 349 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 112 more yards with another score in Tennessee’s 38-33 win over the then No. 1. 20 Florida September 24, only the Vols’ second victory in this series in 18 years. Heupel says there is room for Hooker to grow more.

“Sometimes it seems easy because we are playing at a very high level,” Heupel said. “It’s not easy, and he’s so in control of what we do. He understands the why of everything, and that’s a big part of that.

How much of a jump Tennessee will make in Heupel’s second season hinges heavily on a defense that’s giving up 407 yards per game. The Vols’ scoring defense has been better, allowing just 19 points per game in a stat supplemented by two wins against Mid-American Conference teams.

Heupel said the Vols know best what to do, starting with tackles, assignments and just knowing what they’re supposed to do.

The Vols are coming off an open date, when they worked on these issues and healed before the meat of their SEC slate.

“To see how it’s changed from when I got here to what it is now is just crazy,” defensive lineman Omari Thomas said. “It’s something we want to keep doing, honestly, and getting better and better every week.”

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