Tennessee football: Scott Frost, Nebraska shouldn’t worry Vols with Josh Heupel

Aug 28, 2021; Champaign, Illinois, USA; Nebraska head coach Scott Frost watches his team in the first quarter with Illinois at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 28, 2021; Champaign, Illinois, USA; Nebraska head coach Scott Frost watches his team in the first quarter with Illinois at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports /

It’s in the back of the minds of all Tennessee football fans. The wheels are coming off the Nebraska Cornhuskers’ program under Scott Frost after they lost 30-22 to the Illinois Fighting Illini in Bret Bielema’s first game as head coach of that program this past weekend.

Given the fact that new UT head coach Josh Heupel replaced Frost with the UCF Knights and that both were hired by current Vols AD Danny White, it’s fair to wonder if such coaches flame out at Power Five programs.

After all, the two are incredibly similar. Both won national championships as quarterbacks of Big 12 programs, Frost at Nebraska in 1997 and Heupel with the Oklahoma Sooners in 2000, and both became high-profile offensive coordinators who got their start at UCF. Frost went undefeated at UCF in 2017, and Heupel had an undefeated regular season there in 2018.

To make matters more concerning for Tennessee football fans, Frost is flaming out at Nebraska after building up UCF, while the Knights took a step backward each year under Heupel. Don’t think Twitter hasn’t noticed the comparisons either with Frost on the hot seat.

Sportswriter Marky Billson had his own intriguing take on the matter. Like lots of other people seeing the comparisons, he made good points.

Does this mean it’s panic time on Rocky Top before Heupel has even coached a game? No. We could bring you the cliches on how every situation is unique and every coaching hire stands on its own, but there are other factors in play as to why Frost is struggling at Nebraska that may not apply to the Vols with Heupel.

Let’s start with the fact that Frost had never been a play-caller in the Big Ten before heading to Nebraska. His profile increased because of what he did as offensive coordinator of the Oregon Ducks from 2013 to 2015, but he had never proven that scheme could work against Big Ten play.

Remember, his offenses sputtered in losses to the Stanford Cardinal in 2013, who won the Pac-12 playing like a Big Ten team that year, and in the national title game a year later to the Ohio State Buckeyes, an actual Big Ten team, despite having Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota. Oregon then lost to the eventual Big Ten champion Michigan State Spartans in 2015.

Heupel, on the other hand, built his profile specifically because of what he did as offensive coordinator during his two years in the SEC. In both seasons, 2016 and 2017, the Missouri Tigers averaged over 500 yards a game and led the league in total offense. They were fifth in scoring in 2016 and first in 2017.

There is a counter to this point, to be fair. Frost did beat an SEC team, the Auburn Tigers with UCF as they went undefeated in 2017. Meanwhile, Heupel lost to an SEC team, the LSU Tigers, the next year, costing his program an undefeated season.

You can’t always go by bowl games, though. After all, LSU had a bit more to play for that year given the questions surrounding Ed Orgeron, while Auburn was disappointed about missing out on the playoff the previous year.

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So Heupel has proven he can be successful coaching against the competition he’ll face with UT, which Frost never did while with Nebraska. Then there is the factor of what fits for each program, and that’s another big deal.

Both run the spread offense, but while Heupel’s is a spread with pro-style elements, Frost’s is a spread option. Both rely heavily on speed and will work at a program like UCF, where you are facing lesser competition and can load up on speed players from the Sunshine State.

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However, Frost’s spread option takes away the biggest advantage Nebraska always had: offensive line. Similar to the Iowa Hawkeyes, Wisconsin Badgers and other Big Ten West teams, the Huskers are at their best if they maximize the great blockers from that region. Wisconsin is Offensive Line-U for a reason.

Tom Osborne’s formula was always finding the right offensive linemen to dominate the trenches and making sure he had just enough skill players on the outside. However, Nebraska will never be able to recruit at a level where they win on skill players alone.

That’s antithetical to what Frost runs. His teams are not fast enough to have a unique advantage in the Big Ten, but they are now too finesse to compete with those other teams. That’s where you get them losing to a team coached by Bielema, who is all about the line and blocking up front.

Now, it’s fair to question if Tennessee football can bring in the same type of speed that the Georgias, Alabamas and Floridas can bring in. However, they can certainly bring more speed to run Heupel’s spread offense than Nebraska can.

Also, Heupel’s system is not just reliant on speed. When you run a spread option, most plays are horizontal in nature, which is why Frost’s running plays often times involve receivers. Heupel’s schemes are much more vertical, evidenced by the fact that he usually has multiple true running backs racking up the yards.

In a way, Heupel runs to set up the pass despite playing out of a spread. Frost’s system is all about speed and misdirection. Simply put, Frost is more reliant on speed at a school less likely to attract speed to gain an advantage.

When you combine the fit, or lack thereof, that each coach has with his current program and the proven experience they have, it becomes more obvious that there are huge differences between Frost and Heupel. Vol fans don’t have to worry just yet.

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This isn’t to say Heupel is going to win any national championship with Tennessee football. We can’t say for certain that he’ll even work out. However, he actually has experience coaching against UT competition, and he can recruit the personnel to run his offense. Those are two things you can’t say about Frost.