With NCAA debacle over, Tennessee moves confidently into future

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Heading into the 2023 football season, the Tennessee Volunteers are brimming with optimism. It’s pretty amazing, really, considering recent developments.

By now, every sports fan in the country must’ve heard about the NCAA’s findings in its two-year investigation of the program. To review:

  • It was determined the Vols committed more than 200 NCAA violations over a three-year period from 2018-20 under former coach Jeremy Pruitt.
  • They were forced to vacate every victory from the 2019 and ‘20 seasons, though those totaled only 11. In the official record, they are now 0-5 and 0-7 those two seasons.
  • Tennessee football was hit with a $8 million fine (a collegiate record), placed on five years of probation and lost 28 scholarships.

But there have been high-fives in the halls of the Anderson Training Center, which houses the Vols’ football complex in Knoxville. The reason: No postseason ban.

That means the Vols, in their third season under coach Josh Heupel, still can compete in bowl games. Most notably, that includes the College Football Playoff.

“I said in a room just like this two years ago that (the NCAA investigation) would be a speed bump for the program, our football program,” Heupel said as the last coach up at SEC Football Media Days on Thursday. “And a few days ago, we found out that certainly was the case.”

Effectively, it means they still could win a national championship. How realistic that is given the aforementioned perception and constraints is a matter of debate. But the Big Orange nation and the coaches and players representing it here at SEC Football Media Days definitely believe it’s possible.

Only a few weeks ago, the Vols had no idea what fate awaited them.

“It was a relief, absolutely,” quarterback Joe Milton III said Thursday. “At the same time, me and my teammates had already put that in the past, because that was out of our control. That was the previous staff and I wasn’t here. So, yeah, it was a relief, but at the same time, we’re not doing anything different.”

Nobody was more surprised to see the Vols avoid a postseason ban than one of their former coaches. Lane Kiffin, now the head coach at Ole Miss, left Tennessee in 2010 to take over at Southern Cal that would be hit with a two-year bowl ban a few months later. That was a hurdle he could never overcome before being fired four years later.

“I read where (Heupel) was ecstatic about the penalties and the $8 million fine,” Kiffin said Thursday morning. “So, that probably tells you about how severe the penalties are in their eyes. I’m happy for them that they don’t have to go through what we went through.”

There remains work to be done on the field for the Vols, however. They’re still feeling the high of last season when they finally beat Alabama and rose to No. 1 in the rankings in October. However, the end of last season also brought with it a sobering dose of humility. Tennessee fell hard on the road, first to eventual national champion Georgia and then shockingly to South Carolina. The Vols would finish with an 11-2 record and a No. 6 final ranking.

“As we look back on the ‘22 season, there were a lot special moments, things our fan base and players in our locker room will remember forever,” Heupel said. “At the same time, we fell short of a lot of the goals we had set for ourselves and the program. … (Because of that) this is a group that’s extremely hungry and expects more in the ‘23 season.”

The Vols again find themselves looking up to Georgia heading into the season. Their ESPN FPI rating of 15.2 places them second in the SEC East behind the Bulldogs and predicts them to lose four games.

Heupel identified three areas of improvement in order to exceed such expectations this season: Accountability, consistency and overall strength.

“We’ve got to become more physical,” said Heupel, a former Oklahoma quarterback who is on the College Football Hall of Fame ballot this fall. “When I say that, everybody thinks across the line of scrimmage, but it’s really at every position and with every person inside of the program. We have to continue to grow in that way.”

The schedule has the Vols set up for late-season success. Three of the last five games are at home, with the two road contests being played at Kentucky on Oct. 28 and Missouri on Nov. 11. Tennessee gets the Bulldogs in Neyland Stadium on Nov. 18 in what already is being trumpeted as one of the best SEC games of the 2023 season.

Like a lot of other SEC teams this season, the Vols will be dealing with a change at quarterback. However, there is less angst in Knoxville than there is in other places because there is a known commodity – and confidence – in Milton.

A 6-foot-5, 242-pound fifth-year senior, Milton enters his third season in Heupel’s system and is unquestioned in his anointment as Tennessee’s offensive leader. After starting his career at Michigan, Milton has played in 31 college games with nine starts. That includes four starts and 17 appearances overall with the Vols.

In two seasons at Tennessee, he has completed 59% of his passes for 1,346 yards and 12 touchdowns with zero interceptions. Taking over for the injured Hooker in the final two games of last season, Milton was named MVP of the Vols’ 31-14 win over Clemson in the Orange Bowl.

Milton’s very presence has fueled the Vols’ confidence. He’s described as very different than Hendon Hooker, but every bit as dynamic of a quarterback.

“You get a similar result, hopefully, but the person is very different,” tight end Jacob Warren said. “Hendon’s extremely calm, extremely poised and then very confident. Joe has a different demeanor. Joe’s got energy, he’s got swag, he’s got that smile everybody talks about. He’s got a persona that just fills up the room.”

As for the makeup of the rest of the team, Tennessee is similarly veteran. In addition to Milton, a sixth-year senior, the other two players representing the Vols at SEC Media Days on Thursday were Warren, a fifth-year senior and senior defensive tackle Omari Thomas. Including walk-ons, UT’s roster features 37 seniors.

That’s the good news. It’s in the area of overall talent that the Vols need to show marked improvement going forward.

Tennessee’s 2023 recruiting class was ranked No. 11 in the nation, according to the 247Sports Composite, and the ‘24 class currently is rated 15th overall. While that’s respectable, it’s lagging still behind the likes of Georgia (1), Florida (3) Alabama (5) and LSU (13).

But the Vols will take their victories where they can get them. They got one earlier this week when they beat Georgia head-to-head for coveted receiver target Mike Matthews, a 5-star prospect from Parkview High School in Lilburn, which is just 35 miles from the Bulldogs’ home base.

One of the main selling points for Tennessee was, of course, Heupel’s high-flying, pass-happy offense. But also nudging Matthews the Vols way was their pitch that he’d be able to compete for championships while in Knoxville.

The NCAA’s recent ruling has assured that.

“I’m extremely, extremely confident,” Milton said Thursday. “I trust the guys around me. I trust my coaches to go through the preparation with me confidently. I’m extremely confident.”