Pulling a Tennessee hasn’t often been uttered with good connotations throughout the past 15 years, but that’s among the many aspects Josh Heupel changed in two seasons as the Vols’ football coach.
Pulling a Tennessee last season meant smashing expectations and reaching the Orange Bowl. The Vegas over/under pegged UT for 7½ victories. The Vols went 11-2.
How’d they do it?
Stability within the coaching staff, plus a veteran quarterback who developed into a star. Ole Miss used a similar formula in 2021, when Matt Corral flourished in his second season as Lane Kiffin’s starting quarterback to propel the Rebels into the Sugar Bowl.
When considering who will pull a Tennessee in 2023, a few parameters must be set. For one, this cannot be a team with the loftiest preseason expectations. Alabama and LSU likely will be ranked in the preseason top 10, so they don’t qualify. Consistency within the coaching staff contributes to pulling a Tennessee, as well as a quarterback with a high ceiling.
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So, in 2023, who will pull a Tennessee and surpass projections?
The conversation should start with Tennessee.
Hendon Hooker’s departure should keep expectations for the Vols in check, but Joe Milton’s MVP honors for his Orange Bowl performance showed that Tennessee can sustain momentum.
Milton knows Heupel’s system, and his presence alleviates the pressure on five-star freshman Nico Iamaleava. Bru McCoy and Jaylen Wright are established linchpins, and a new wave of playmakers led by Squirrel White will enjoy the opportunity to break out.
The Vols’ defense is the tricky part.
Linebacker Aaron Beasley returns to lead what was a dependable run defense, but the pass coverage can’t possibly be much worse. A key question will be whether Tennessee can replicate the pass rush that was instrumental in wins over LSU, Kentucky and Clemson, with top quarterback harasser Byron Young bound for the NFL.
ESPN’s advanced metrics love the Vols. Metrics guru Bill Connelly ranks the Vols No. 6 in his SP+ projections, which consider returning production, recruiting and recent performance. Only Georgia and Alabama rank higher from within the SEC.
The schedule sets up nicely. Swing games against Texas A&M and South Carolina are at home.
Texas A&M Aggies
Aside from the Vols, the Aggies are a prime candidate to pull a Tennessee and rise from mediocrity to a New Year’s Six contender.
You might be thinking: Isn’t Texas A&M always overrated? Not always, but often. Never was that more the case than last season, when the Aggies were ranked preseason No. 6 but failed to win six games. Last season’s hype always seemed misplaced for a team so dependent on youth and lacking a proven quarterback.
Consider A&M’s 2022 season like Ole Miss going 5-5 in 2020, before the Rebels doubled their win total the following season with a veteran roster.
The two burning questions facing A&M: Will Jimbo Fisher stay out of offensive coordinator Bobby Petrino’s way and allow him to freshen an offense that’s grown stale? And, how lofty is Conner Weigman’s potential? The Aggies beat LSU in their finale last November with Weigman at the reins.
No SEC team returns more production than A&M, according to Connelly’s metrics.
The Aggies’ defense ought to remain sturdy, so becoming a breakout team boils down to whether Weigman can link with receivers like Evan Stewart and Moose Muhammad to jumpstart an offense that’s trended down throughout Fisher’s tenure.
South Carolina Gamecocks
A third-year coach, a returning quarterback who finished with a flourish, plus a favorable schedule that includes a manageable crossover game against Mississippi State and home games against Florida, Kentucky and Clemson gives the Gamecocks an opportunity to exceed expectations.
Spencer Rattler ranks among the SEC’s most talented quarterbacks. After the coaching staff removed Rattler’s training wheels and put more on his shoulders in November, the Gamecocks played their best ball, beating Tennessee and Clemson.
Transfer Mario Anderson, a Division II All-American, offers the potential for a running back upgrade, and Juice Wells is a dependable target who teamed with Rattler to spearhead the Gamecocks’ November exploits. Transfer tight end Trey Knox from Arkansas should be a boon for Rattler, too.
The top concern facing South Carolina is whether it will improve on the lines of scrimmage. The Gamecocks’ line neither established the run nor protected Rattler well throughout 2022, and their run defense was leaky. The defense will miss one of its top performers, Jordan Burch, who transferred to Oregon.
Still, a talented veteran quarterback goes a long way toward offsetting a mediocre defense, as Hooker proved during the Vols’ resurgent 2022. And few quarterbacks were better throughout November than Rattler, a possible tease of what’s in store for ’23.
Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer.
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