Nick Saban has won seven national championships.
He has won with different quarterbacks, different coaches, different schemes and against different opponents.
But has never won a championship without elite talent?
That brings me to Tennessee coach Josh Heupel.
Is there a coach in the SEC that gets more out of his talent than Heupel?
Is there a coach in the country that gets more out of his talent than Heupel?
This is not to throw shade on Saban. His job is to recruit great players.
But what Huepel has done with lesser talent and inherited talent is stunning, especially scoring an upset over No. 1 Alabama 52-49 Saturday night in sold out Neyland Stadium.
Hendon Hooker had some nice moments at Virginia Tech, but he lost the starting job.
Now he’s a Heisman Trophy candidate.
Jalin Hyatt was a speedster who lost his job at Tennessee after four games because he kept dropping passes. Now he’s the best wideout in the SEC and he’s in the UT record books with five touchdown catches in a game.
Cedric Tillman caught eight passes in three seasons before Heupel arrived. Tillman caught 64 passes for 1,081 yards and 12 touchdowns last season and ranks among the nation’s top wideouts – when healthy.
Tennessee doesn’t have an elite running back, but the Vols ran for 182 yards against Alabama’s No 1 ranked run defense in the SEC.
Alabama has better talent than Tennessee, but the Vols were terrific offensively and showed resiliency in bouncing back from a touchdown deficit in the fourth quarter to send Neyland Stadium into pandemonium.
And Tennessee outschemed the Tide in getting Hyatt open for those five scoring catches, often matching him up against an Alabama safety.
Considering what Heupel inherited, it’s hard to believe he has Tennessee undefeated and ranked No. 3 in the nation – the school’s highest during the middle of a regular season since 1999 – 19 games into his tenure.
Remember, from the start of the 2020 season and the start of the 2021 season, Tennessee lost 43 players that could have been on the roster – 37 transfers, two retirements, four let out of their National Letter of Intent. Two more transferred during the 2021 season.
Heupel didn’t just inherit a depleted roster, he inherited an NCAA investigation that is still not resolved.
So it stands to reason he doesn’t have the talent of an Alabama or Georgia or Ohio State or Clemson or several other marquee schools.
Yet he has Tennessee in the conversation for the College Football Playoffs.
And if you go by recruiting rankings and star gazing, Tennessee isn’t close to Alabama in personnel.
For example, on Alabama’s two-deep depth chart, the Tide has eight five-stars; UT has two. Alabama has 29 four-stars, UT has 14.
In the last five recruiting classes, Alabama has signed 19 five-stars, UT two. And Bama has signed 90 four-stars, UT 45.
In previous years, Tennessee has had five stars that played like four stars and four stars that played like three stars.
Under Heupel, three stars are playing like four stars and four stars are playing like five stars.
And they have played their way past Alabama and into a No. 3 national ranking by doing more with less.