You hear it every week from Josh Heupel. No matter who Tennessee football is playing, it’s only the biggest game because it’s the next one. That’s how he tries to approach it.
However, he couldn’t ignore the magnitude of Saturday night’s 52-49 victory over the Alabama Crimson Tide. By the time he reached his postgame press conference, it was clear he understood it.
“During the week, I don’t know that I downplayed it, but I certainly didn’t recognize it, and I felt it and knew it from the moment that I’ve gotten here,” he said. “Tonight, obviously was for our players, but it’s for our former players, it’s for our donors, it’s for our fans. I know how much this has meant to the people of Tennessee and Vol Nation.”
Maybe not recognizing it was a good thing, though. Heupel never panicked throughout the game, even after the Vols blew a 28-10 lead and after they fell behind 49-42 late.
In terms of play-calling, Heupel stuck to the script, including never abandoning the run game. He struck the perfect balance of focusing on the process and then appreciating the end result.
“It speaks to our coaching staff, Coach (Alex) Golesh, Coach (Tim) Banks, Coach (Mike) Ekeler, our coordinators, and every assistant coach, our young coaches too, just the growth inside of our program from the time that we got here,” he said. “The ability to be resilient. It wasn’t pretty in the second half. There was a lot of things that we didn’t do at the level that we’re capable of, but our kids continue to reset and go play and believe.”
As fans stormed the field and tore down the goal posts, there was no way to ignore it. The Vols had just pulled off one of their most historic wins in school history.
Heupel touted the atmosphere once again, calling it unbelievable. For him, it went all the way back to the Vol Walk and continued as fans rushed the field.
“As that thing ends, shoot, I’m running out in the middle of the field, but you can see the swarm of orange coming down,” he said. “The orange out was phenomenal tonight, but God, the energy from our fans, man, student body, our entire, entire stadium, it was electric.”
According to Heupel, there was a plan to make sure everybody was safe, particularly the coaches and players, in case fans rushed the field. That was obviously necessary.
When it comes to the players, the mental toughness of having to fight back multiple times in the second half after seemingly letting the game slip away was impressive. It’s a testament to Heupel’s approach.
“I do think our program, our players, our coaches are calm in the storm,” he said. “We talk a lot about it. We talked about it this week. Sixty minutes. It doesn’t matter what it looks like in the beginning, the middle, the end. Late third, early fourth, man it didn’t look good, but our guys just continued to reset.”
Three second-half moments made this clear. First, Hendon Hooker threw a touchdown pass to Jalin Hyatt after Alabama came back from down 28-10 to tie it up at 28.
However, Chase McGrath missed that extra point, and Alabama took a 35-34 lead on the next drive. Then they intercepted Hooker for the first time all year.
Well, enter the second moment. Tennessee football stopped Alabama on the following drive and then got the ball back to score and go up 42-35.
Finally, Hooker and Jabari Small fumbled an exchange, which Alabama recovered and ran back for a score to go up 49-42. They responded with a touchdown on the next drive. Every time Alabama punched, the Vols responded.
“That speaks to the culture in the program,” Heupel said. “That speaks to our coaching staff. I mentioned our coordinators. Our entire coaching staff does a phenomenal job. It speaks to the leadership, too, and Hendon is a big part of that.”
If you question whether or not Heupel understood how important Tennessee football’s win over Alabama was, though, note that he rolled out a victory cigar at the end of the game. He and Danny White enjoyed theirs together.
“I smoked it slow, but it was dang good,” he said. “It was a great night, man. So much fun, from former players to our current players, guys that just finished a year ago that are a huge part of this culture and what this program has been able to do this year.”