At long last, it’s football time in Tennessee.
The Volunteer football program has surely undergone its share of changes over the past year, from the departure of former coach Jeremy Pruitt to NCAA sanctions that are on the way, and plenty of players who have either gone to the NFL or entered the transfer portal.
It’s safe to say the 2021 squad will look quite different for new head coach Josh Heupel.
Heupel comes to Rocky Top after three seasons at UCF where he composed an impressive 28-8 overall record.
He’s known for a high-octane spread offense that wants to turn each and every game into a track meet.
The quarterback Heupel marches out for this season is Michigan transfer Joe Milton.
Milton didn’t get a ton of looks for the Wolverines a season ago, but did complete over 56 % of his passes, but had just four touchdowns against four interceptions.
One of Milton’s biggest downfield threats will be Jalin Hyatt, who appeared in eight games a season ago and tallied 276 receiving yards and two touchdowns.
How will that look in 2021 for Tennessee fans?
Well, it may be a while before the fruits of what Heupel can offer. Here’s a game-by-game breakdown of what 2021 holds in store for Volunteer fans:
Sept. 2 vs. Bowling Green
Tennessee gets a prime time opening game on Thursday night against Bowling Green. Quite simply, this should be a story of superior athletes against an out-matched opponent. Bowling Green enters 2021 after an 0-5 2020 campaign in which the Falcons scored all of 57 points.
This should be a good welcome to Rocky Top for the Heupel coaching staff and the new players on the field.
Prediction: 42-10 W
Sept. 11 vs. Pitt
The second game on the slate should be the first true test for the Tennessee offense. The Pitt Panthers are predicted to be in the mix of the ACC. Pitt returns a talented core of offensive players and could be a competitive game for the Vols early on. Tennessee will have to play keep away and rely on the run game, rather than trying to turn the game into a track meet. Vols will take a close victory in this one.
Prediction: 35-31 W
Sept. 18 vs. Tn Tech
In Week 3, Tennessee takes a step back again from power conference opposition and will face an out-matched Tennessee Tech squad in Knoxville. Much like the opener against Bowling Green, this should be a good opportunity to get the bulk of the roster on the field. The Vols should cruise to an easy win here.
Prediction: 45-17 W
Sept. 25 at. Florida
In late September, Tennessee begins the difficult task of navigating a brutal SEC slate. While Dan Mullen’s bunch in Gainesville loses a huge amount of production from a year ago, Florida has plenty of talent waiting to step to the plate. Mullen is in Year 4 and has had plenty of time to get his recruiting classes to bear fruits. It’s less of a rebuild for the Gators and more of a reload. With the player turnover at Tennessee, coupled with playing in the Swamp, Florida should knock off the Vols for the first loss of the season.
Prediction 38-17 L
Oct. 2 at. Mizzou
After falling to Florida in the SEC opener, Tennessee will once again be on the road and face Mizzou in Columbia. While playing at Mizzou doesn’t necessarily carry the weight of playing in the toughest SEC venues, it’s still a road game in the SEC and won’t be an easy task. Quarterback Connor Bazelak returns to the Tigers in 2021 as a 67% passer from a year ago. While Tennessee has the ability to keep this one close, the home team will squeak out a win following a late score.
Prediction: 28-27 L
Oct. 9 vs. SC
October 9 should be circled by Heupel as a “must-win” for Tennessee. Wins aren’t easy in the SEC and the ones you’re supposed to win are ones you have to take care of business in.
South Carolina will hang its hat on quarterback Zeb Noland, who has made the rounds, including stops at Iowa State and South Dakota State. But it will be another quarterback, Joe Milton, who has a breakthrough game and makes the plays in the clutch.
Prediction: 35-17 W
Oct. 16 vs. Ole Miss
Lane Kiffin gave Alabama all it wanted and then some a year ago. It’s no secret the former Volunteer head coach will receive a less-than welcoming return to Rocky Top in October, but he will most likely get the last laugh.
Several preseason polls have Ole’ Miss predicted as an SEC West dark horse to unseat Alabama as the king of the SEC.
The Rebels have an absolute gunslinger at quarterback in Matt Corral, who threw for 3,337 yards and 29 touchdowns a season ago. Ole’ Miss simply has too much firepower for Tennessee to match this season. While the Vols should be able to make some plays, the Rebs will have fewer empty possessions and come away with the win.
Prediction: 48-28 L
Oct. 23 at. Alabama
Tennessee has not beaten Alabama since 2006. During that stretch, Alabama has established itself as the best college football program in America. While the Tide loses a ton of production on both sides of the ball, Alabama isn’t a program that rebuilds, but rather reloads. The 2021 season won’t be any different as Alabama reloads for another national title run. While there may be a few bumps along the way, the Tide should get a comfortable win against the Vols in Tuscaloosa.
Prediction: 52-17 L
Nov. 6 at Kentucky
Another game that carries a huge amount of intrigue is the November 6 meeting against Kentucky. Historically, Tennessee has dominated the series, but the Wildcats have claimed a pair of wins in the last four seasons, with the Vols dropping a 34-7 decision last season. While the margin will be decidedly closer, Tennessee will drop another heartbreaker on the road and fall to 4-5 on the season.
Prediction: 24-21 L
Nov. 13 vs. Georgia
November 13 brings about another border war against another national title contender in Georgia. Several preseason polls have Kirby Smart’s squad to not only make a run at the SEC championship, but a national title as well.
J.T. Daniels played in just four games last season for Georgia, but threw for over 1,200 yards and had 10 TDs against just two interceptions. This will be another tough week for the Vols.
Prediction: 48-24 L
Nov. 20 vs. S. Alabama
After pressing through the meat of the schedule, Tennessee will sit positioned to possibly chase after six wins with two winnable games to end the regular season.
The November 20 meeting against South Alabama is another chance for the Vols to get out to an early lead and utilize the entirety of the roster. Look for the Vols to cruise past another team that just doesn’t have the athletes Tennessee does.
Prediction: 38-21 W
Nov. 27 vs. Vandy
Finally, the in-state rivalry renewed between two programs looking to begin a new chapter in their program’s history. Tennessee comfortably defeated Vanderbilt a season ago and in a team that is looking at a complete overhaul, the Commodores are nowhere nearly as capable in terms of on-field production. Clark Lea will look for a statement to finish his first year as the Vandy head coach, but it won’t come against the Volunteers. Tennessee beats Vanderbilt to get its sixth win of the season.
Prediction: 38-17 W
ANALYSIS: While the era of COVID can ultimately derail any team at any point, if everything plays out and the Volunteers can stay away from the injury bug, there’s the possibility of chasing six wins in Josh Heupel’s debut season for the Vols, which can springboard the program moving forward past the NCAA violations incurred by the former coaching staff. That said, the Vols will take their lumps in 2021, but if the ball bounces their way in the close games, Tennessee could find itself overachieving and finish in the middle of the SEC East.