The Tennessee Volunteers made a statement in 2021, proving coach Josh Heupel’s high-octane offense could flourish in college football’s most talented conference. The Vols have burned defenses for 45 or more points on seven occasions while averaging just under 40 points per game for the season. They were ninth in total offense (474 yards per game), but it would be shortsighted to attribute all of their success to the aggressive pace they put on opposing defenses. On a per-game basis, Tennessee wasn’t just fast; it was effective. The offense’s 6.74 yards per play put him in the Top 20, peaking at 7.03 in the last full month of the season. It was no secret that Heupel’s offense was quick, but the speed of the program’s turnover at Tennessee caught most by surprise.
The inevitable byproduct of instant success is the expectations that follow. Tennessee’s seven-win year accelerated Heupel’s timeline to raise the bar even higher in his sophomore season. The offense will be charged once more. QB Hendon Hooker returns after throwing 31 touchdowns against three interceptions. His growth in the Heupel scheme positions him as a 50-to-1 schemer at BetMGM to win the Heisman Trophy. The comeback is also his most reliable target in WR Cedric Tillman. This electric combination finished last season connecting seven times for 150 yards and three touchdowns at the Music City Bowl. But as they discovered in that 48-45 loss to Purdue, you can’t count on everyone. And with expectations skyrocketing in Year 2, it will be the defense that decides whether this team improves in 2022.
Is the Vols offense enough to push them to eight wins?
A big part of Heupel’s offensive identity is keeping his foot on the gas, but the Vols’ defense has made it an absolute must. Last year’s Music City Bowl was a prime example. Tennessee lost to Purdue despite rushing for 663 yards. Boilermakers QB Aidan O’Connell did his bidding, throwing for 534 yards in the overtime win. Additionally, Tennessee’s porous secondary ranked dead last in the SEC in pass defense, and the team chose not to bring in much outside help to improve the unit. It’s a big bet for a defense that finished outside the top 100 in three key categories:
Points awarded per quality possession
Explosive passes allowed over 20 yards or more
One-third opponent conversion rate
The Vols’ defense relies on a strong pass rush to create havoc, but I wonder if that approach can work against the SEC’s talent-rich offenses. The Vols’ conference wins last season were against Missouri, South Carolina, Kentucky and Vanderbilt. These four teams had a combined conference record of 9-23.
Tennessee 8 wins: Over (-105); Under (-115)
After spending most of the summer at 7.5 wins, strong support for the overs pushed the win total to 8. The adjustment opens up the perfect opportunity to bet the unders with push-up protection in case of season 8-4. Nine wins would be way too big a jump for a team with the defensive question marks Tennessee carries this year. It’s much easier to find five losses on the schedule than three. A 9-3 season would only allow one loss in addition to the inevitable two from Alabama and Georgia.
The Vols have three tough road games in Pittsburgh, LSU and South Carolina, as well as two conference home games hosting Kentucky and Florida. That’s five opponents, outside of Alabama and Georgia, that I expect to be competitive. One thing that struck me about Tennessee is that despite going 7-6 last year, they haven’t shown the ability to compete against stronger teams. Tennessee was 1-5 ATS as an underdog, and that should remind bettors that even after a successful first year, Heupel continues to build their roster. The Vols’ playstyle also makes them more susceptible to high-variance outcomes. You can’t push teams aside if your defense can’t get out of the field.
Heupel has done a tremendous job creating a new culture in Knoxville, where they have every reason to be optimistic. But it’s too fast and too early to expect the team to continue on this trajectory. I see the Vols as a 7 win team, which makes less than 8 wins a solid bet at -115 odds. The Vols offense will continue to break records under Heupel, but the team will be stuck at neutral until the defense catches up.
*Statistics provided by teamrankings.comathletic sports and cfbstats.com.