Tennessee football's Josh Heupel falls behind rivals in college football coach rankings

Josh Heupel falls behind SEC rival coaches in The Athletic's 2024 top-25 college football head coach rankings.

Tennessee v Missouri
Tennessee v Missouri / Ed Zurga/GettyImages

Tennessee football is coming off another winning season and a dominant bowl win in 2023. The Vols finished with a 9-4 record, capping off their season with a 35-0 victory over the Big Ten's West division champion Iowa Hawkeyes.

We had the opportunity to see what the 2024 Vols could look like with Nico Iamaleava running the offense in the Citrus Bowl win, but all of that wasn't enough to move Tennessee's Josh Heupel ahead of some key SEC rivals. 

Since coming to Rocky Top, Heupel has a 27-12 record, including a 14-10 record against SEC opponents. This is significantly better than the record of recent head coaches before Heupel.

Stewart Mandel of The Athletic dropped Heupel out of the top 20 in his annual college football coaches' top 25 rankings. Heupel was ranked No. 18 in Mandel's 2023 rankings but falls to No. 24 in this year's edition of the rankings.

Unsurprisingly, Georgia's Kirby Smart comes in at the top of the list after winning back-to-back national championships and then dominating Florida State in the 2023 Orange Bowl. Heupel also falls behind Alabama's Kalen DeBoer at No. 4, LSU's Brian Kelly at No. 6, Texas' Steve Sarkisian at No. 11, and Kentucky's Mark Stoops, who came in at No. 22 this year.

Mandel dropped Heupel for only winning nine games in 2023, compared to the Vols’ 11-win season in 2022.

“The Vols slipped back a bit from their breakout 11-2 campaign in Heupel’s second season but still finished 9-4 and a top 20 ranking,” Mandel wrote. “Heupel has produced four Top 25 teams in six seasons as a head coach (three at UCF, three at Tennessee). For some perspective: He is a modest 14-10 in SEC play during his time in Knoxville.”

Bruce Feldman's opinion of Heupel is the opposite of Mandel's. Heupel's ranking improved in Feldman's 2024 coach rankings. Feldman has Heupel ranked No. 17 in his ranking, with the Vols' head coach still behind SEC rivals Kirby Smart at No. 1, Kalen DeBoer at No. 3, Brian Kelly at No. 6, Ole Miss' Lane Kiffin at No. 11, Steve Sarkisian at No. 13, and Mark Stoops at No. 14.

“The Vols had been a punch line for a long time before Heupel came in from UCF,” Feldman wrote. “On the strength of his big-play offense, Tennessee went 11-2 in 2022, smashing LSU in Baton Rouge and then taking down Alabama the following week. Amazing turnaround job. With Hendon Hooker gone, UT fell back a little last year, going 9-4, but they didn’t fall apart. He has proven to be a superb hire.”

While Heupel falls behind some SEC rivals like Kentucky's Stoops, Tennessee has to remain focused on winning games against conference rivals like Florida, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt. This year's Vols team will have a decent opportunity to compete with Georgia and Alabama again at the top of the SEC.

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Even if Tennessee matches their nine-game win total from 2023, that will be a successful season with redshirt Freshman Nico Iamaleava running the offense full-time. Anything better than that, and Heupel could lead the Vols to make the expanded College Football Playoff.