Welcome to the SEC, Josh Heupel.
You’ll find the learning curve here is a bit steeper than it is in the AAC.
UT’s new head coach’s league debut was full of lessons he needs to learn fast if he’s going to be the guy to lead the Vols out of college football’s wilderness.
Saturday night against a Florida team with a decided talent advantage, the Vols had little room for error. And while there were no catastrophic blunders that plagued big games during the Jeremy Pruitt era, there were too many minor mistakes to win against a team as good as Florida in an environment as hostile as The Swamp.
Dropped passes, penalties, missed tackles, special teams miscommunication, questionable clock management, and a head-scratching decision to challenge a call that had no chance of being reversed. These were some of the miscues that doomed Heupel in his first visit to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
At UCF, perhaps these mistakes were not as costly. But with a depleted roster at Tennessee, they will always be deadly against elite competition.
You can survive these errors in the AAC and still win. You might even be able to survive them and still win next week against Missouri. But against the upper echelon teams in this league, you have to play clean football.
Heupel has shown a nice knack for drawing up offensive game plans that get receivers open and exploit the opponent’s weaknesses. This is a promising development for a program that has suffered from anemic offense for the previous four seasons.
However, the perfect game plan is futile if you don’t have your players prepared to execute it. It’s even more useless if your defensive and special teams play is lacking.
Yes, all championship teams feature high octane offenses these days. But they still rely on stingy defense, sound kicking games, and quality game management from the head coach.
The little mistakes that cost the Vols against the Gators appear much bigger in close games. UT is likely to find itself in several in the coming weeks.
For Heupel, it’s time to start sweating the small stuff.
As disappointing as the second half of the Florida game was, there is still a lot to play for this season for Tennessee.
This week’s game at Missouri is huge for Heupel’s program.
The Tigers cut the picture of an SEC also-ran after losing at Boston College on Saturday. South Carolina looks more like some of the AAC teams Heupel used to feast on at UCF. And Kentucky is looking more Kentucky-like the past two weeks.
Beat Missouri and South Carolina and Vol Nation just might be able to talk itself into believing in an upset when Saint Lane brings Ole Miss to Knoxville in three weeks.