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Tennessee football: Comparing Josh Heupel’s second year with Vols to national championship coaches’ second years at their respective schools

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Tennessee football coach Josh Heupel certainly has the look of a championship coach. The turnaround the Vols have undergone in just two years under the up-and-coming college football star has been nothing short of remarkable. Does that mean Heupel is due for a national title at Tennessee? That’s complicated.

Heupel finished 7-6 in 2021, his first season as Tennessee’s head coach. However, judging him – or any head coach – in the first season of a complete rebuild is simply impossible and unfair. Heupel’s second season should provide a better glimpse into the future when predicting what kind of success he may have.

There’s no guarantee that the Vols will match their win total from 2022 in this upcoming season or that Heupel will ever win even an SEC East division title with Tennessee football. However, his second season as a Vol would make one think both are likely.

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Here are how championship coaches from the past decade fared during their second season before eventually winning a national championship:

Georgia – Kirby Smart

Smart certainly got Georgia headed in the right direction quickly after taking over the Bulldogs in 2016. Georgia finished 8-5 in Smart’s first season in 2016. Then, the Bulldogs finished 13-2 and played in the national championship game in 2017. It would take a while to claim the ultimate crown, a national championship, which Georgia finally did in 2021. Smart now has two national championship trophies after winning back-to-back titles in the last two seasons.

Alabama – Nick Saban

It was widely expected that Saban would have to rebuild Alabama’s program in 2007 when he took over the Crimson Tide. His record that season, 7-6, would indicate a foundation needed to be laid. That was accomplished quickly as Saban went 12-2 in 2008, his second season at Bama, and won the national championship the following season, finishing 14-0.

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It’s worth noting that Saban, who also won a national title at LSU in 2003, finished 10-3 in his second season in Baton Rouge in 2001. Saban’s Tigers were 8-4 in 2000, his first season at LSU. There was a dip in 2002 when the Bayou Bengals finished 8-5, but they followed that up with Saban’s first championship the following season.

LSU – Ed Orgeron

It’s easy to remember Orgeron’s time at LSU as an abject failure other than the undefeated national championship team he guided in 2019 when you consider how things went off the rails during and after his departure. However, Orgeron was trending in the right way early at LSU. 

As an interim coach in 2016, Orgeron finished 6-2 after taking over for Les Miles. Orgeron finished 9-4 in 2017, his first full season at LSU, before going 10-3 in his second full season as a “Tigah” in 2018. Then, the stars aligned in 2019 as Orgeron fielded one of the best teams in recent memory. LSU finished the season 15-0 and won the national championship before being fired in 2021.

Clemson – Dabo Swinney

Like Orgeron, Swinney was named an interim coach at Clemson as he took over for Tommy Bowden in 2008. Swinney finished 4-3 that year. In his first full season as head coach, Swinney finished 9-5 in 2009, but dropped to 6-7 in his second full season in 2010. Then, Swinney righted the ship. 

Since 2011, Swinney has won 10 games or more every season at Clemson, including national titles in 2016 and 2018. There was a lull in Swinney’s second season and it took some patience, but he eventually proved to be a surprisingly fantastic hire.

Ohio State – Urban Meyer

Of all the championship coaches in recent history, Meyer got things going the quickest at Ohio State. The Buckeyes were 12-0 in his first season in Columbus, but were ineligible for championship consideration due to NCAA penalties. Meyer’s second season at Ohio State ended in a 12-2 record in 2013. Then, in his third season, Meyer won a national championship with a 14-1 record in 2014.

Meyer, who won two national championships at Florida, also got things going quickly for the Gators when he took over in 2005. Florida finished 9-3 that season, but won the national championship in his second season after finishing 13-1.

Florida State – Jimbo Fisher

Fisher won a national championship at Florida State after his program actually took a step back following a 10-4 season in 2010, his first as the head coach of the Seminoles. Fisher went 9-4 in 2011 during his second season in Tallahassee, then won 10 or more games in five consecutive seasons. That included a national championship and an undefeated record in 2013.

As far as Heupel, there is no question he is trending in the right direction. As far as his second season, that won’t likely determine if he nabs a college football crown. It could take some time or the Vols could be champions sooner rather than later. At this point, history would indicate the latter.

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