From conference bottom-dweller to national title contender.
Tennessee’s ascendance in the college football hierarchy has happened in a blink, or about as fast as the up-tempo offensive attack fueling the rise.
Two seasons after firing a head coach, losing an athletic director and watching transfers defect in droves, the Vols are in full control of their College Football Playoff destiny.
They exorcized one of their biggest demons by beating rival Alabama 52-49 on a walk-off 40-yard field goal by Chase McGrath that snapped a 15-game losing streak to the Tide.
After the first win in the series for the Vols since 2006, pandemonium ensued inside a pulsating Neyland Stadium filled to its capacity of 101,915.
Fans flooded the field in a sea of orange and tore down the goal posts to carry to the Tennessee River in celebration. A pungent haze of cigar smoke permeated the stadium for hours, with some waiting 16 years to light up old stogies in the long-standing rivalry winner’s tradition.
“Man, what an unbelievable scene,” UT head coach Josh Heupel says. “That thing ends and, shoot, I’m running out in the middle of the field. You can see the swarm of orange coming down. The orange-out was phenomenal tonight. The energy from our fans, the student body and our entire stadium was electric.”
No. 3 Tennessee (6-0, 3-0 SEC) has a good hangover cure game on the schedule for Saturday, when the Vols host UT Martin at Noon EDT (SEC Network).
It should be a much-needed physical and emotional respite after victories over LSU and Alabama as the Vols gear up for an integral SEC stretch run that includes a showdown at No. 1 Georgia Nov. 5.
Tennessee rose to No. 3 in The Associated Press rankings this week – its highest ranking since the start of 2005 – and received first-place votes in the poll for the first time since 1999.
The Vols are the only team in the nation with four victories over AP Top 25 teams at the time of the meeting. They are the first team in college football history to start a season 6-0, beat four AP Top 25 opponents and score at least 30 points in the first six games of a single season.
Even the most optimistic UT fan couldn’t have imagined this quick of a rebuild under Heupel. The former UCF head coach arrived with the program in shambles and the threat of NCAA sanctions hanging over his head, yet instantly revamped the culture with a fun style of play and hope for the future.
“Coach Heup is definitely competitive, and that’s what really helped change this team, is just his competitiveness,” says UT sixth-year senior tight end Princeton Fant. “He’s brought (that) into us and every day we go out there to practice, we’re competing. Every time we step on the field on Saturday nights, we’re competing.”
The Vols managed to beat Alabama while missing two of their top players in wide receiver Cedric Tillman (ankle injury) and safety Jaylen McCollough (arrest). During his Monday news conference, Heupel says McCollough was not suspended by the program and the Vols hope to have him back on the field in the near future.
“(The) process is still going on with him,” Heupel says. “We’ll see how that continues to play out here. (We) look forward to having him available soon.”
Jalin Hyatt had a breakout performance against the Tide. The junior wide receiver had six receptions and five went for touchdowns to set the single-game program record and tie the SEC single-game record for touchdown catches. Hyatt finished with a career-high 207 yards, hauling in scoring passes of 36, 11, 60, 78 and 13 yards.
“To be honest, I didn’t know I was going to have five touchdowns. That’s a lot,” Hyatt says. “It was the looks, what they were showing us. We came to the sidelines and figured out what was going to work against their defense. There’s a lot that goes to it in terms of the game plan and how we prepare.”
Although the Vols celebrated wildly in the aftermath and savored a scene in Knoxville that won’t soon be forgotten, they know they can’t rest on their laurels. They saw a lot of flaws to be fixed when they broke down the game film.
“From the outside looking in, everything here looks pretty good for the most part,” Heupel says. “From the inside looking out, we’ve got a lot of work to do and a lot of things to clean up.”
Tennessee’s undefeated start puts the Vols in the driver’s seat for a shot at a potential SEC championship and national title. Even if the Vols suffer a loss to Georgia in Athens, they could still be in position to earn one of the CFP four slots.
Given the depths of despair the program reached, that very idea would have still seemed like a pipe dream only a few weeks ago.
But the magical run of the last few weeks has brought the national spotlight for all the right reasons. It’s something the Vols don’t take for granted and don’t want to end any time soon.
“I feel that if it’s something you really want to do and you are trying to get where you want to go, it is easy to keep focused,” UT junior defensive lineman Omari Thomas says. “Especially when you got people around you continuing to push you and who all have the same common goal.”