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Have Tennessee rivals lost their bite in 2024?

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Tennessee will enter the 2024 season with one seemingly indomitable foe. That sounds familiar. However, now they won’t have to beat them.

Nick Saban’s retirement at Alabama makes the SEC look quite similar, from the Vols’ perspective, as it did when Tennessee was at its best, in the 1990’s and early 2000’s. The Vols knew year in and year out that, for most part, they’d be judged by how they played against Florida. Tennessee was almost always the favorite in every other game it played during the glory days under former head coach Phillip Fulmer, who had one heck of an advantage.

The coaches that Fulmer faced during his run weren’t exactly top notch. There was Ray Goff and Jim Donnan at Kentucky, Brad Scott and Lou Holtz at South Carolina and whoever Kentucky and Vanderbilt trotted out to lead their respective teams. That wasn’t a stellar run of coaches in the SEC East that Tennessee had to play – and recruit against – on an annual basis. Moreover, Tennessee’s annual rival, Alabama, was going through coaches like tissue paper until it got to Saban. So how much better are the teams’ coaching staffs that the Vols will face both on the field and the recruiting trail?

Let’s start with Georgia. Head coach Kirby Smart has the Bulldogs at a championship level. As for South Carolina, the Gamecocks are seeing significant turnover under coach Shane Beamer, whose seat seems to be getting warm. Kentucky is under solid leadership with coach Mark Stoops, but the Vols have still won 10 of the last 12 against Kentucky and don’t often face the Cats on the recruiting trail. With Alabama most likely to fall off post-Saban, the Vols have to seize this opportunity now.

No, the SEC isn’t suddenly a weak conference, even though it was a bit down last year. Texas and Oklahoma, along with the rest, should ensure the SEC wins more national titles than any other conference. However, college football’s realignment and evolution helps the Vols. Tennessee can win a national championship without ever having to beat Georgia. The Vols could easily lose to Georgia, win 10 games in the regular season, make the 12-team playoff set to debut this season and still hoist a championship trophy. With Saban and Smart always on the schedule, there seemed to be two probable losses always looming. No longer.

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The Vols will enter the 2024 season as an underdog in likely just one game, against Georgia. We’ll see about Alabama and there is a trip to Oklahoma that Vegas will render its verdict on. However, the goal for the Vols should no longer be getting to Atlanta, as it has been, to play for an SEC Championship. The goal should be making the College Football Playoff every season. Now, there may be times in which the Vols don’t find the perfect quarterback, like last year, but that shouldn’t be the norm, especially now that Heupel is more entrenched in his role. Then, we’ll see where the chips fall in the playoffs.

If Tennessee is annually in the College Football Playoff, they’ll almost assuredly advance. It will be tough for non-SEC schools to match the Vols’ speed and it will be even tougher for other coaching staffs to prepare for Tennessee’s unique offense.

The Vols should also benefit on the recruiting trail. They don’t have to top Bama for every elite prospect in the southeast. There will be countless prospects who always dreamed of playing for Saban that will now be looking elsewhere. Georgia can only take so many. Tennessee looks like a good stop as everything is trending in a positive direction. It’s worth nothing that the Vols won a national championship with an Alabama native at quarterback. Is there another Tee Martin in the the Yellowhammer State that might have wandering eyes in recruiting with Saban gone? Most definitely. 

There are a handful of schools that should benefit from Saban stepping aside. Auburn should be doing backflips. However, Tennessee is right there alongside the Tigers. There are no longer any excuses for Heupel, or any other coach that had to annually play Alabama and often get beat down. Tennessee’s chances to win a national championship and the pressure on Heupel raised exponentially with Saban hanging up his headset.

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