Tennessee continued to signal its reemergence as a national power under second-year head coach Josh Heupel on Saturday, defeating LSU 40-13 in Baton Rouge. Here are 10 things that stood out…
1.) Emptying the stadium
By the mid-point of the third quarter, purple- and gold-clad LSU fans were leaving Tiger Stadium in droves. The Vols were up 30-7 at that point and driving for more. Tennessee was well-represented in Baton Rouge, and with the exception of LSU’s lone first half scoring drive late in the second quarter, the fans wearing orange were nearly as loud as the ones wearing purple and gold most of the day. But as the stadium emptied in the second half, the Pride of the Southland Band’s familiar rendition of Rocky Top echoed throughout the stadium.
It’s been a while. For well over a decade, Tennessee fans have packed Neyland Stadium for big games, then hit the exits early in the second half as the game got out of hand. Think 2021 Georgia, or 2019 Georgia, or 2018 Georgia, or 2017 LSU, or … you get the point.
This time, though, the roles were reversed. It’s been a while since Tennessee has gone on the road and emptied a stadium like that against a ranked opponent.
How long? Well, Tennessee has beaten ranked opponents on the road here and there — including a 45-42 win at No. 18 Kentucky last year — but the games were usually close. The last stadium-emptying road win against a ranked opponent was way back in 2006, when a Tennessee team ranked No. 13 went to Athens and beat No. 10 Georgia 51-33.
The 40-13 win over LSU was Tennessee’s most lopsided road win over a ranked opponent since Peyton Manning hit Joey Kent for an 80-yard touchdown strike on “play number one” and the sixth-ranked Vols defeated No. 12 Alabama 41-14 at Legion Field in Birmingham. That was on Oct. 14, 1995. Yes, it had been a while.
2.) The quick rebuild
As you watched LSU fans file out of Tiger Stadium Saturday afternoon, it was hard not to be reminded of just how quickly Josh Heupel has rebuilt this Tennessee program.
Just two years ago, the Vols were making payouts to prospective players in fast food bags. Despite cheating, UT couldn’t compete against average SEC teams. They had no offense to speak of. They had a head coach in Jeremy Pruitt who wasn’t competent enough to be a head coach at the college level, and an athletics director in Phillip Fulmer who was in so far over his head that he couldn’t see daylight.
In less than two years, Heupel has turned Tennessee into a legitimate threat in the SEC. Can the Vols beat Alabama? I’ll have to see it to believe it. Can they beat Georgia? Maybe, but not likely. That really isn’t the point, though. The point is that Tennessee will enter the annual Third Saturday of October showdown with Alabama as a Top 10 team, with a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback, and it feels an awfully lot like the 1990s around East Tennessee.
Of course there are some things that have made Heupel’s job easier — like the transfer portal — but he still gets the credit for putting together a legitimate contender. And also deserving of credit is athletics director Danny White. While a lot of fans were excited about White’s hire, given his track record at Central Florida, his hire of Heupel — who was with him in Orlando — certainly wasn’t the “sexy” hire, as they say. But everything White has done has turned out well. Obviously Tennessee fans will want Heupel to be paid well so that he isn’t tempted to look elsewhere, but it should also go without saying that White needs to be properly compensated, as well.
3.) Speaking of legitimate…
There are still some SEC football fans who wear colors like blue or red or crimson who claim that Tennessee “hasn’t played anyone.”
But Saturday’s 40-13 win at LSU was Tennessee’s second road win over a ranked team this season, the other being Pittsburgh. If you go back to the win in Lexington last year, Tennessee has now won three straight road games against ranked opponents. The last time that happened? Also 1995. In addition to the win at No. 12 Alabama, Tennessee defeated No. 18 Arkansas 49-31 in Fayetteville, and defeated No. 4 Ohio State 20-14 at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando.
No matter how you dissect it, Josh Heupel is building a contender.
4.) A big, big matchup looms
Assuming Alabama takes care of its business against Texas A&M this evening — and the Tide are a 22-point favorite — next week’s game at Neyland Stadium will feature unbeaten teams ranked in the Top 10 nationally.
The last time Tennessee entered its game against Alabama unbeaten was 1998, the year the Vols won a national championship. They defeated an unranked Alabama team 35-18 at Neyland Stadium on Oct. 24 of that year. (Tennessee was nearly unbeaten before its 2016 meeting against Alabama, but lost to Texas A&M in double overtime the week before.)
It seems hard to believe, given how large this rivalry has been through the years, but the last time both Tennessee and Alabama were unbeaten when they met on the field was 1989. That year, No. 10 Alabama defeated No. 6 Tennessee in Birmingham, 47-30.
5.) Heisman Hendon
Hendon Hooker is now a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate. Obviously, Tennessee will probably have to beat either Georgia or Alabama — and perhaps both — for Hooker to still be a contender at the end of the season. But, at this point, he’s receiving a lot of Heisman hype. And legitimately so.
The last Tennessee player to finish in the Top 10 in the Heisman balloting was Peyton Manning, back in 1997. There’s actually a fairly legit chance Hooker can accomplish that even if Tennessee is unable to beat Georgia or Alabama. Manning, of course, finished second in the Heisman voting in 1997, as did Heath Shuler in 1993 and Johnny Majors in 1956. Tennessee has never had a Heisman winner, which is almost hard to believe.
Hooker actually had a subpar day against LSU, only because he was shaken up after being sacked in the second quarter. Hooker was rocked on a blindside hit, and appeared to suffer a rib injury, although he stayed in the game and ran the ball several times in the second half. But for the remainder of the first half, Hooker struggled with accuracy. He also had two fumbles, with one of them coming on the sack in question.
By the game’s end, however, Hooker had completed 17 of 27 passes for 239 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Not eye-popping numbers, certainly, but solid. And the most solid number of all: His team put up 40 on the road.
Tennessee has now scored 30-plus in eight consecutive games, dating back to last year’s loss to top-ranked Georgia, a 41-17 loss.
6.) Making Daniels shine
You know you’re thinking it: There’s not a college football team in America that can make struggling quarterbacks look as good as Tennessee.
It’s a truth that Vols fans know all too well. Defensive coordinators change, players change, but Tennessee always seems to be just what the doctor ordered for a quarterback who is coming off a rough stretch.
LSU’s Jayden Daniels completed only 8 of 20 passes for 80 yards against Auburn last week. Against the Vols, he completed 32 of 45 passes for 300 yards. It was his first 300-yard passing game since he was a true freshman in 2019.
Yes, you read that right: Jayden Daniels had the first 300-yard passing game of his career since his freshman season against Tennessee on Saturday.
That’s probably unsurprising. Tennessee’s secondary is obviously the weakest point for this team, and it’s not even close. If you give an opposing SEC quarterback a little time to throw the football, he’s going to rack up yards — just as Florida’s Anthony Richardson did two weeks ago.
With that said, it wasn’t all bad for Tennessee’s defense. Daniels finished with a rating of 130, which was his second-lowest of the season. And on LSU’s final play, Trayvon Flowers snagged an interception in the end zone. It was Daniels’ first INT of the season, and his first since a pick in a loss at Oregon State on Nov. 20, 2021.
Still, it goes without saying that the performance of Richardson and Daniels is concerning with last year’s Heisman winner, Bryce Young, awaiting Tennessee’s defense next week.
7.) Tennessee’s defense shines
All in all, Tennessee’s defense may have played its best game of the season. First and foremost, the Vols got pressure on Daniels, finishing with five sacks. It was the most sacks LSU has given up this season, and tied for the most the Tigers have given up since 2018.
Byron Young was a beast, with 2.5 sacks, and Tennessee’s defense collectively had nine tackles for loss.
Tennessee limited LSU to 55 yards on the ground, held the Tigers to well below their season average, and LSU was 0 of 3 on fourth down. It was a good effort.
8.) Welcome to the SEC, Brian Kelly
Is Brian Kelly regretting his decision to join the SEC? Maybe not yet, but there’s no excuse for the first-year LSU coach to lose by 27 points to Tennessee, at home, even in his first season on the job. He inherited a far better situation than many first-year head coaches in the SEC, including Heupel at Tennessee in 2021.
Kelly, who made the move to LSU from Notre Dame, has been called a reincarnation of Butch Jones — and not just because Jones followed Kelly at coaching stops at Western Michigan and Cincinnati.
Kelly gifted Tennessee points late in the first half of Saturday afternoon’s game. Facing fourth and 10 at Tennessee’s 45 yard line with 23 seconds remaining, Daniels was sacked by Young, giving Tennessee possession at LSU’s 47 yard line. The Vols needed only one pass completion to get into field goal range, and expanded their lead from 20-7 to 23-7 after Chase McGrath’s 32-yard field goal as time expired.
Earlier in the first half, Kelly chose to go for it on fourth and four at Tennessee’s 14 yard line, rather than attempt a field goal that could’ve made it 10-3. Kayshon Boutte was stopped short of the line to gain by just inches, and Tennessee subsequently went on an 11-play, 68-yard drive that ended with a 38-yard McGrath field goal to make it 13-0.
On the very next possession, Kelly decided to go for it on fourth and one at his 46 yard line, and Josh Williams was stuffed behind the line of scrimmage. One play later, Hooker connected with Jalin Hyatt on a picture-perfect 45-yard touchdown strike to make it 20-0.
Kelly greatly assisted Tennessee’s cause in the first half of Saturday’s game.
9.) Special teams were special
A muffed kickoff to start the game gave Tennessee possession at LSU’s 27 yard line, leading to a seven-yard touchdown run by Jabari Small.
After a three-and-out by LSU, Dee Williams returned a Jay Bramblett punt 58 yards to LSU’s 26, setting up McGrath’s first field goal of the afternoon.
Just like that, Tennessee was out to a 10-0 lead, thanks to its special teams.
10.) Give it to small
Jabari Small finished with 127 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 22 carries, and averaged 5.8 yards per carry. It was the first time this season the junior has surpassed 100 yards, and topped his previous season high of 90 yards, against Florida.
Small rushed the 2021 season with 792 yards, cracking the century mark in the final two games of the season against Vanderbilt (103) and against Purdue in the Music City Bowl (180). He continues to prove himself as the best back on Tennessee’s roster, and should be an increasingly valuable weapon as the season progresses, if he stays healthy.