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Is Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel outperforming his predecessors?

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Tennessee coach Josh Heupel has enjoyed success while entertaining Tennessee’s fans the last three years, especially compared to the early years of his predecessors.

Now in his third season, Heupel’s best campaign as Tennessee’s coach came in 2022, when the Vols finished the season 11-2 and won big games against teams like Alabama, Clemson, Florida and LSU.

This year, Tennessee took a step back.

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The Vols finished the 2023 regular season with an 8-4 record. That was respectable, but short of the team’s preseason goal of winning the SEC East and building on the success of 2022. That has led to questions about where Tennessee’s program will go. The conversation also requires some perspective.

Heupel can’t escape comparisons to the Tennessee coaches who came before him. Since Phillip Fulmer was fired in 2008, the Vols have struggled to return to championship

Lane Kiffin came and went in one season. Then, Tennessee went through three cycles of coaching before landing on Heupel.

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So how do Heupel’s first three seasons as Tennessee’s head coach compare to the first three
years of the Vols’ three previous coaches?

Let’s take a look:

Derek Dooley: 2010-12

Overall Record: 15-21
Overall SEC Record: 4-19
2012 Record: 4-7*
2012 SEC Record: 0-7*
Ranked Opponents: 15
Record vs Ranked Opponents: 0-15
Fired before Game No. 12 in 2012

Butch Jones: 2013-15

Overall Record: 21-17
Overall SEC Record: 10-14
2015 Record: 9-4
2015 SEC Record: 5-3
Ranked Opponents in three years: 15
Record vs Ranked Opponents: 3-12
*Includes bowl win vs Northwestern

Jeremy Pruitt: 2018-20

Overall Record: 16-19
Overall SEC Record: 10-16
2020 Record: 3-7
2020 SEC Record: 3-7
Ranked Opponents: 13
Record vs Ranked Opponents: 2-11

Josh Heupel: 2021-23

Overall Record: 26-12
Overall SEC Record: 14-10
2023 Record: 4-4
Ranked Opponents: 15
Record vs Ranked Opponents: 7-8


The numbers between Dooley and Heupel are in two different worlds. Dooley went winless in 15 games against ranked opponents. Heupel won as many SEC games in a down 2023 season (4) as Dooley won in all three years at Tennessee. There’s often a debate among Tennessee fans over which head coach since Phillip Fulmer was the worst for the Vols. Any argument other than Dooley must be based on non-football reasons. His record looks like a bad typo.

Heupel has found success against quality opponents. He has the most impressive win of the last 15 years – the 2022 win over Alabama, the Vols’ only win against the Tide since 2006. Heupel has won nearly half of his games against ranked teams; that’s nearly double the next highest win total of three by Butch Jones. The most disappointing part of Heupel’s four losses in 2023 was the lopsided difference.
Tennessee lost all four games this season by at least 13 points and an average of 21 points per
defeat. By comparison, Jones’ four losses in 2015 were by a COMBINED 17 points – an average of
4.25 points per loss. An 8-4 record is not a major disappointment, but Heupel and Tennessee will want to avoid blowout losses moving forward. The main question fans will have is what happens next? That brings us to recruiting.

As of this publication, Tennessee’s 2024 class ranks No. 12 in the 247Sports Composite ranking.
(The Thursday announcement of 5-star offensive lineman Jordan Seaton will have a major
impact on the Vols’ ranking.) How does Tennessee’s current ranking compare to the previous coaches’ third full signing classes? Under Heupel, the Vols ranked 25th in the nation in recruiting in 2012, fourth in the nation in 2015 and 21st in the nation in 2021.

As for his previous signing classes, the 2015 class stands out – and for obvious reasons. The 2012 and 2021 classes were signed after head coaching changes. Those classes didn’t stand a chance of having real success. The 2015 class was highly rated but included too many players who failed to live up to their
potential. The 2023 class needs to be different. Heupel is trying to build the future with his players.
How the offensive line class of 2024 develops and the impact of other highly-touted players, like
athlete Boo Carter and wide receiver Mike Matthews, will play a big role in Tennessee’s future
results. There’s also that Nico guy.

If freshman quarterback Nico Iamaleava is close to what recruiting experts predicted a year ago, Tennessee will have a chance to win big. Tennessee struggled to find a solution to the departure of Josh Dobbs following the 2016 season. The Vols need someone to help replace the production of Hendon Hooker in 2021 and 2022. Is Nico that guy? If he is, Heupel will continue to outperform the results of his predecessors.

Looking at the numbers, that’s not too big of an ask.

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