After a 7-6 campaign in 2021, Josh Heupel’s first year as head man for the Vols, many Tennessee fans felt as though a breakout season was imminent in ’22. Though they finished with a modest record in Heupel’s initial season, a robust offensive attack had many of the Big Orange faithful optimistic, especially when compared to the hard-nosed, defensively-oriented, ultimately aimless character of the program under Jeremy Pruitt.
And what a season it was for Tennessee. The Volunteers came out of the gates like gangbusters, putting up points and yardage galore on everybody on their schedule. Of course, the game they had circled was Alabama—their biggest rival (sorry Vanderbilt) and a team who they had not beaten since Nick Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa. In 2021, they hung with the Tide for a bit before ultimately letting the game slip away. Within the friendly confines of Neyland Stadium, though, and with this matured team that was firing on all cylinders, it was a sure “if not now, then when?” moment for the Vols.
At that point, the Vols had their sights set on UGA—the only team standing between them and CFP contention. A rainstorm and suffocating defense dampened Tennessee’s hopes on that front, however, and Big Orange fell to the Dawgs, 27-13. Even so, the UT faithful still had high hopes—after all, it’s not unheard of for an SEC team that misses the championship game to still qualify for the CFP. All they had to do was go out and dominate the remainder of a schedule that was really not all that tough for a top-5 team in the country.
What they didn’t expect, however, was a night game in Columbia, South Carolina undoing those hopes. Spencer Rattler, Juice Wells, Jaheim Bell and the rest of the Gamecocks detonated against the Volunteer defense while Hendon Hooker went down with an ankle injury late in the game. That ended up not mattering all that much to the result—South Carolina looked like a team that could name their score that evening—but it was nevertheless a devastating blow to morale and overall offensive execution. The Gamecocks won, 63-38.
Enter Joe Milton. Milton, a transfer from Michigan, was known as a guy with one of the biggest arms in the country but questionable accuracy. He lost the starting job to the supremely-accurate Hendon Hooker at the beginning of the year, but still possessed the kind of talent that had fans abuzz. To his credit, he went out and executed against Vandy (not too hard an ask) and Clemson (a very hard ask), putting up 7.0 YPA/1 TD and 9.0 YPA/3 TDs respectively. As previously mentioned, the Vols won the Orange Bowl, finishing at 6th in the AP for their most successful season in more than a decade.
As you might expect, the entire Volunteer offense boasted quite gaudy statistics by any measure you care to levy at it. 3.62 points per drive for the season, exceeding opponents’ average YPA allowed by 145% on average, a 50% success rate for the season… The Volunteers truly put up some historic numbers, even facing three very skilled defenses in Alabama, UGA, and Clemson.
One of the more surprising stats, however, was the dominance of the Volunteer run defense. Volunteer opponents, on average, were held to a paltry 70% of their average YPC—a mark approaching elite territory for the Vols against the run. The only two teams to exceed their season-average YPC in a game against the Vols were South Carolina and—somehow—Missouri.
If the Vols are able to continue with this stellar run defense, it will definitely be a key matchup to watch in their game against Texas A&M football. On that note, let’s check out the rest of the matchups for when these two teams clash.