Will Tennessee football be good or great in 2023? Why it's a fine line for Vols fans' expectations

Knoxville News Sentinel
Find a reasonable Tennessee football fan and ask them how many games the Vols will win this season.
They’ll say a number higher than seven. That’s how many UT won in coach Josh Heupel’s first season in 2021, when he was cleaning up the mess left by the Jeremy Pruitt recruiting scandal.
They’ll likely say a number lower than 11. That’s how many UT won in Heupel’s second season in 2022, the best for the program in more than 20 years. And to reach any higher probably would mean a College Football Playoff bid.
But there wasn’t that much difference between those two teams.
That’s what makes this 2023 season so exciting for optimistic UT fans and perhaps a little scary for the glass-half-empty crowd.
There’s just such a fine line between a pretty good season and a great season. And Heupel knows that heading into the Vols’ preseason practice, which starts Wednesday.
“Every program around the country does all the big things. It’s all the little things that add up to being the difference,” Heupel said. “Those are the things that our coaches and players got to be focused on during the course of training camp.”
It really just comes down to defense
Heupel said those “little things” are trust, accountability and confidence. Putting that coach speak aside, another item on the list should be a competitive defense.
In 2021, the Vols ranked 90th in scoring defense at 29.1 points allowed per game. In 2022, they ranked 36th at 22.8 points allowed per game.
That progress had a clearcut impact when UT went from 7-6 to 11-2 over two seasons.
In 2021, one key defensive stop against Pittsburgh, Ole Miss and Purdue would’ve made that season look more like the 2022 success.
In 2022, the Vols got an overtime stop to defeat Pittsburgh. They picked off a pass to secure the win over Florida and made one more defensive play than Alabama in that victory. Without those timely performances, last season would’ve looked a lot like 2021.
And don’t forget that the 2022 defense was dominant in lopsided wins over LSU, Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Clemson.
“Our kids (on defense) know what we bring to the table,” defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. “You can’t win 11 games without playing great defense. And we felt like we more than handled our business on that side of the ball.”
Will offense be the best or better than most?
Of course, pinning success on the defense assumes the offense won’t miss a beat. And that seems to be a popular assumption.
UT lost five players to the NFL Draft, and four of them were on offense. That should leave gaping holes. But all four Vols selected to the preseason All-SEC team were on offense.
Quarterback Joe Milton is getting preseason hype similar to Hendon Hooker, who is now in the NFL, a year ago. Fans and media assume wide receivers Bru McCoy and Squirrel White will slide easily into the starring roles left by NFL players Cedric Tillman and Jalin Hyatt.
It seems like a given that UT will light up the scoreboard once again.
But don’t forget the offense also had to improve from Heupel’s first season to become the best in college football in his second year.
In 2021, the Vols ranked seventh in scoring offense at 39.3 points per game. In 2022, it skyrocketed to No. 1 at 46.1 points per game.
Those are both admirable numbers. But one offense was outscored by Purdue in the Music City and the other beat Clemson in the Orange Bowl.
It appears to be a fine line, but with wide-reaching ramifications.
What could go wrong? Joe Milton injury
Milton and five-star freshman Nico Iamaleava are the only scholarship quarterbacks on the roster.
Offensive coordinator Joey Halzle said he would have “huge confidence” in Iamaleava if he needed to play in a competitive game.
But Iamaleava, despite his talent, is an untested freshman in a new offense who’s never played an SEC game. It’s hard to believe the Vols could play at the same level with him behind center as with Milton.
So a Milton injury could cost UT a couple of wins.
The Vols also need a weakside edge rusher to replace NFL Draft pick Byron Young. There are holes on the offensive line and in each level of the defense. Transfers must fill those gaps.
What could go right? Vols are just getting started
The best two players from the Orange Bowl are back. Milton is the undisputed leader of the offense. And his trio of wide receivers from that game – McCoy, White and Ramel Keyton – return.
Linebacker Aaron Beasley, who arguably played better than Milton in the Orange Bowl, returns as the playmaking tone-setter on defense. The bulk of the interior defensive line is back after being a top-25 unit against the run last season.
Predicting UT’s 2023 record really just depends on whether the Vols are destined for peaks and valleys under Heupel or they’re on an upward trajectory that hasn’t ended.
Jabari Small, the starting running back on the 2021 and 2022 teams, pondered those two narratives and declined both.
“We were so proud of the growth (from 2021 to 2022). But last year seemed bittersweet because we were so close to our main goal (of reaching the SEC title game,” Small said.
“We know the way to get where we want to go. But last season was last season. Now we start from scratch.”
That’s the scary part and the exciting part.

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