Tennessee football: Does Josh Heupel have a case for SEC Coach of the Year

The season isn’t over, and Tennessee football hasn’t technically even guaranteed itself bowl eligibility yet. However, by sitting at 5-4 and 3-3 in the SEC in November, it’s impossible to deny the job Josh Heupel’s done on Rocky Top.

On the heels of a 45-42 road win over a top 20 team in the Kentucky Wildcats, Heupel is now garnering SEC Coach of the Year consideration. In an interview with Jimmy Hyams, Rick Neuheisel of CBS said he would vote for Heupel to win the award.

Neuheisel touted how historically great the Georgia Bulldogs are and gave Kirby Smart credit for it. However, he gave more credit to Heupel for Tennessee football being in the position it’s in given the situation he walked into. Here’s a bit of what Neuheisel said.

“But for Josh Heupel to come into the situation he found himself in and to deliver in the way he has delivered, not only wins and losses, but with the way the kids are playing and the way the fans have bought in, it is has been absolutely fun to watch the energy that has been at Neyland Stadium.”

It is hard to ignore what Heupel did. The Vols lost 45 players from last year’s roster, and only one of those players couldn’t return this year due to eligibility: Brandon Kennedy. Three went to the NFL in Bryce Thompson, Josh Palmer and Trey Smith. Another two retired for medical reasons, and 39 transferred elsewhere.

To make matters worse, six members of the original 2021 signing class were either dismissed, entered the transfer portal or let out of their letter of intent. That means that UT has 50 players who could have been on the roster this year but are not.

With those scholarship limitations, Heupel having the Vols above .500 right now and effectively guaranteeing a winning record with the final two games against the South Alabama Jaguars and Vanderbilt Commodores is hard to ignore. Considering the fact that this team was 3-7 just last year, it’s even more impressive.

Before you bring up the tougher schedule from last year due to COVID, the Vols were 3-5 in SEC games they were always scheduled to play last year. They’re extremely likely to finish 4-4 in league games this year.

Simply put, despite inheriting a significantly depleted roster, Heupel has led Tennessee football to a much better season already than Jeremy Pruitt led them to last year. That was a really hard task given what he inherited.

Bryan Harsin of the Auburn Tigers has a case and could finish 10-2, but nobody is doubting that he inherited more talent. South Carolina head coach Shane Beamer is now in the conversation as well after beating the Florida Gators, but a bowl is still just a 50/50 shot, and he lost to Heupel despite not inheriting a dire situation. Right now, Heupel has a better case than those two.

Of course, this situation is fluid. Just like Heupel could fall out of this conversation with an upset loss in one of his final two games, he could more firmly enter the conversation if the Vols somehow pulled of a dramatic upset this weekend against Smart and UGA. Heck, if he wins out, there shouldn’t even be a vote.

No matter what, the future seems bright for Tennessee football given what Heupel was able to do this year. Whether or not he can recruit at a high level remains to be seen, but he’s certainly off to an amazing start in terms of coaching on the field.