In just their second year under Josh Heupel, Tennessee football was able to beat the two dynasties of college football before the Georgia Bulldogs. The Vols knocked off the Alabama Crimson Tide in a thriller and the Clemson Tigers in the Orange Bowl.
Those wins were significant enough to propel UT to much greater heights. Now, though, they have a rare opportunity to build on that because of what’s facing both programs.
The two teams of the 2010s could both be headed for down years. Alabama will be back under Nick Saban but has major issues in 2023. Clemson is sliding, slowly but surely, as a program in general. Tennessee football must pounce.
A huge reason it has been difficult for the Vols to return to prominence was the emergence of Clemson under Dabo Swinney. Clemson welcomed Tajh Boyd after Lane Kiffin forced him off, and that was the catalyst for their program.
From the point of adding Boyd, Swinney began a process of gradually taking more recruits from the Vols. He built a national title program two times over in the process, and UT lost a pipeline.
Within the SEC, Alabama’s consistent dominance of Rocky Top was a point of humiliation for them. It couldn’t help their recruiting hopes, and honestly, given the fact that they recruit the same areas, they were always going to lose out to Nick Saban.
Times have changed, though. Swinney is not the players’ coach he once was, as he’s taking away scholarships from walk-ons and is raging against NIL money. There’s concern about where Clemson will end up in conference realignment.
Meanwhile, Tennessee football is back to prominence under Heupel. Now, when it comes to the more desirable place between the two schools, the Vols actually have the upper hand, and significantly.
That’s a long-term trend, though. It’s much more short-term for Alabama. UT beat them last year and now has a great chance to beat them again this year.
Ty Simpson, a quarterback the Vols once wanted, was supposed to be the answer after Bryce Young since Jalen Milroe couldn’t cut it last year. However, Simpson was awful in the spring game. He had two A-Day interceptions.
As a result, Saban is likely looking for a quarterback in the transfer portal, but anybody good enough to start likely would have already committed in January. Alabama was an 8-4 team without Young and Will Anderson last year.
Both are now gone, and they don’t have a quarterback to replace Young. Simply put, Saban is headed for a rebuilding year, his first since 2010.
Taking that into account, Tennessee football needs to beat Alabama again this year. Sure, it’s in Tuscaloosa, but the Vols have a major advantage given this issue.
If Heupel beats Saban again, Tennessee easily emerges as the most desirable program for recruits in the SEC outside of Georgia. Heupel will look like the coach of the future, and Saban will look like a relic of the past, particularly if he goes 8-4 this year.
Should that happen, Tennessee football could have Alabama and Clemson both out of the way while recruiting the state of Georgia against the Dawgs. They could also get that pipeline back into South Carolina, but they can’t let the Gamecocks blow them out again.