Tennessee enters the Third Saturday of October as the #2 scoring offense in the country at 47 points per game. Josh Huepel’s scheme with Hendon Hooker at QB has suddenly taken the NCAA by storm...
Except is it really so sudden? We were actually pretty close this at this same point last year:
7 games into the Josh Huepel era, and the Tennessee offense has, surprisingly, elevated themselves out of the multi-year dumpster fire we’ve all become used to. The Vols are averaging north of 39 points per game (11th in the nation) on the back of one of the most deadly rushing attacks in the country, supplemented with an efficient passing game.
I feel gross after typing that paragraph.
Anyway, as a little bit of background, Heupel is a former Oklahoma QB who went back to the Sooners from 2006-2014, where he was the QB coach and eventually offensive coordinator for Sam Bradford, Landry Jones, and Trevor Knight. He was also the offensive coordinator in Missouri for Drew Lock for a couple of years before taking his first head coaching job at UCF for the last three years, where his offenses were consistently top-10 in the country in scoring.
His offense blends a lot of the spread passing concepts that were so popular in the Big 12 in the early 2010s while featuring a prominent zone read rushing attack similar to the old Dan Mullen with Tebow/Prescott offenses. Thus far, the Vols are averaging 224 passing yards and 248 rushing yards per game.
The Vols wound up as the #7 offense in the country at the end of last year, but that gets forgotten about when Alabama hung 52 points on them and everyone just forgot they actually had nearly as good of an offense last year when the Tide defense slowed them to only 24 points.
The QB, RBs and much of the receiving group are all the same, other than trading out one USC castoff transfer in Velus Jones for another in Bru McCoy.
Hendon Hooker is completing 70% of his passes for a shade over 10 yards per attempt so far, both of which are slight improvements over his 2021 rate stats. He’s also still good for about 8-9 rushing attempts each game and is one of the top dual-threat QBs in the country.
In terms of athleticism and decision making, Hooker is absolutely elite— he should be by now... Dude is a 6th year senior who’s been starting collegiate games since 2019— and will methodically move an offense down the field methodically without ever making any mistakes. He’s not the best deep ball thrower around and will occasionally misfire a ball, but the Vols don’t tend to rely on that anyway.
If you remember my preview on Cincinnati last year, he’s basically Desmond Ridder plus.
Running backs Jabari Small and Jaylen Wright return from very productive seasons in 2021. They haven’t been quite as explosive as they were a year ago, but are still chewing up defenses with good efficiency. They get a lot of running room created for them by the ever-present threat of a QB keeper from Hooker.
At receiver, Cedric Tillman and Jalin Hyatt both return. Tillman was the Vols leading receiver last year and would be this year, but he’s missed the last couple of games with an injury. He’s a tall receiver with outstanding hands and catch radius and is likely to be the go-to guy on any third downs, assuming he plays.
Hyatt has done damage to Alabama in years past as a slot guy with tremendous speed. And then USC transfer Bru McCoy was a former top-10 recruit who many thought would be a linebacker, and is now a 6’3” 220 pound brute of a wide receiver who will routinely test Alabama’s cornerbacks in press coverage and down the sidelines.
To be totally honest, we still don’t know a whole lot about Tennessee. They’ve scored fast and early each game and then got the starters out of there as soon as possible in most games. And while Florida, LSU, and Cincinnati sounded like a tough opening slate, the Tigers and Gators have been shells of programs so far, and the Bearcats just graduated pretty much an entire starting 22 players to the NFL after last season.
Hendon Hooker has been phenomenal, but he also has faced very little pass rush so far. And Will Anderson and Co. is a whole new ball game for him.
Schematically, it’s going to be interesting. Pete Golding’s defense is built to allow teams to routinely complete quick passes as his players rally to the tackle, and he’s betting that college offenses will not be able to string enough plays like that together consistently to get all the way down the field.
On the other hand, Huepel’s offense will spam slant routes all day long, with some designed Hooker runs to keep a defense honest.
I think they’re going to get some scores on the Tide, but Alabama definitely holds them well below their season average. I’m going to guess somewhere in the range of 28-34 points.