Saturday marks the fourth time this year Tennessee football will play a team it lost to. In the previous three, Josh Heupel had a very different tone on why his team lost last year.
Against the Pittsburgh Panthers, Florida Gators and even Alabama Crimson Tide, he talked about late-game mistakes. He even explained blowout losses to Florida and Alabama with mistakes and not yet buying in.
However, when discussing the Vols’ loss last year to the Georgia Bulldogs and their offense’s inability to execute, he didn’t use any of that. Instead, he went straight to talent.
“I mean, their personnel, really good, and they are this year, too,” Heupel said in his Monday press conference. “There’s some things that we did, too. Games like this, situational football, third downs, fourth downs are going to be critical in the way the game ultimately ends up playing out throughout the course of the game. We’ve got to do a better job in a lot of those situations, offensively and defensively.”
It is true that Georgia had an elite defense last year, one that would’ve been considered historically great if not for that SEC Championship game hiccup. They shut down UT’s offense, winning 41-17.
The Vols were held to under 400 yards of total offense. They reached Georgia territory on their first three drives of the second half, twice in the red zone, and came away empty handed.
Still, this is a dramatically different Georgia team, one that isn’t nearly as talented on defense. That doesn’t mean the talent isn’t elite, though.”
“They’re athletic. They can run (at) all three levels,” Heupel said of Georgia’s defense. They’re physical on all three levels. They don’t have any busts. They play their assignments extremely well. They make you earn it.”
So with that type of talent, how can Heupel cash in? The Vols have been putting up insane offensive numbers because of their playmakers, but scheming has been a huge part of it too.
Heupel lining up trips near the sideline the way he does has never been done, and it’s allowed guys like Jalin Hyatt to thrive. Will he get away with that against a defensive wizard like Kirby Smart?
Well, although he didn’t last year, it’s worth noting Tennessee football is a lot more experienced this year. Heupel also noted execution comes down to players more than the game plan.
“Scheme is putting your players in a position to be successful,” he said. “I think we always ask the question, ‘What can our players do individually? What can they do at a really high level? And let’s put them in a position to do that.’ Then your players have got to be able to go out and perform and execute, so that’s understanding your job.”
A veteran quarterback like Hendon Hooker certainly helps. One area of improvement that is all on Hooker this year has been his pocket presence.
Last year, he was sacked against Georgia six times. However, given his improved pocket presence, that shouldn’t be nearly the same problem this year.
“His eyes are in the right place,” Heupel said of Hooker. “That takes him to his reading progression. Now you pair that with his fundamentals taking a whole ‘nother jump in his game, and he’s become a guy that’s operating as highly and as effectively as anybody in the country.”
Part of that improvement is up front too. Tennessee football has already shown itself to be much better against elite pass rushes by beating Alabama.
The line shut down Will Anderson Jr. for much of the game. Darnell Wright just won his second SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week Award the past three games. Heupel touted the sense of purpose Wright plays with.
“He’s gained another year of strength, so his power, his athleticism shows up in a different way than it did a year ago, and it was really good a year ago, too,” he said. “You put all those pieces together, it lends itself to him playing at the level that he is.”
Wright isn’t the only one, though. Jerome Carvin and Javontez Spraggins on the interior have both earned SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week this year. There have been no complaints about Cooper Mays or at left tackle either.
Simply put, Tennessee football can now own the line of scrimmage. That’s huge in helping them scheme for UGA, and it’s a testament to Glen Elarbee.
“Glen’s a huge part of what we do offensively,” Heupel said. “He’s smart, got a great mind and is a fantastic teacher. Inside of the meeting room, his ability to help all of those guys grow in their football IQ, football understanding, understanding our schemes, and then fundamentally develop is why that group has been consistently recognized within our conference for individual play, but collectively as a group, too.”
Will the Vols’ improvement and Georgia’s noticeable regression be enough for Heupel to be able to scheme in this game? Well, they certainly have a better shot than last year.