Tennessee football is never boring.
We have learned this over the past fifteen years, and the trend has certainly continued in 2021.
Let’s step into the time machine and look back at the ups and downs of the 2021 Volunteers regular season.
High: Tennessee beats Kentucky
As much as things change, they stay the same.
The Vols’ dominance over Kentucky continued with a thrilling 45-42 victory at Lexington. Tennessee’s quick hitting offense (more on that in a moment) was in full view as Hendon Hooker threw a career-high 4 touchdown passes. The Vols had less than 14 minutes of possession. Kentucky has never kicked.
And the Flights won anyway.
Since 1984, Tennessee has lost only 3 times to the Wildcats.
High: The Tennessee-Ole Miss Atmosphere
I’ve been going to games at Neyland Stadium since 1994 and the Flights / Ole Miss contest in October is on my short list of memorable experiences. The atmosphere was electric. The crowd was incredibly loud throughout the evening. It was college football on a big screen… until the last two minutes (which we will also come back to later).
High: Hendon Hooker saves the Flights
The Tennessee quarterback’s situation has been volatile to say the least since Josh Dobbs left campus in 2016.
Transfer Graduates Hendon Hooker was sort of the forgotten man in the QB Flights room. But Brian Maurer resigned, Kaidon Salter was fired, Joe Milton was ineffective and eventually Harrison Bailey ran away.
All Hooker did was lead the Vols to a winning season and a bowl spot, with 2,567 passing yards, 561 rushing yards and 31 combined touchdowns.
Hooker has been a godsend for this team.
High: Josh Heupel’s offense
We shouldn’t be surprised that new head coach Josh Heupel has produced a successful offense this year. His plan worked everywhere he went.
Tennessee has seen offenses that have been painful to watch in recent years. This group lights up the dashboard with an entertaining and fast-paced style.
High: Jeremy Banks’ Big Year
When Henry To’o ‘To’o transferred to Alabama, it put a ton of pressure on junior linebacker Jeremy Banks.
The Cordova native rose to the challenge, leading the Vols with 108 tackles. Linebacker is a busy position in the conference, but Banks deserves consideration for SEC honors.
High: the emergence of Cedric Tillman
He had been on the roster for 3 years, with just 8 catches in 25 games leading up to 2021. But Cedric Tillman has had a stellar season for the 2021 Flights.
Tillman leads the team with 57 catches for 931 yards and 9 touchdowns.
Against college football’s best defense, Tillman was formidable. Georgia couldn’t stop Tillman that afternoon. He posted a career-high 10 catches for 200 yards and a touchdown.
High: Defensive coordinator Tim Banks makes a difference
The transfer portal emptied Tennessee, especially in defense. Heupel’s biggest hire would be a defensive coordinator.
Tim Banks came from Penn State, where he was defensive co-coordinator and safety coach. He did wonders with an understaffed unit.
Low: Tennessee / Ole Miss “Riot”
There are a lot of excuses to justify the Neyland riot. The nighttime kickoff meant more “hydration”. The officials were unable to maintain control of the game. The rampant “cramps” of the Rebel players on a 55-degree night, which slowed the Tennessee attack time and time again.
But the reaction from some Tennessee fans was overblown. There is no excuse for throwing things from the stands.
Weak: defeat in Florida
For many years, Vols fans have wanted the Florida game to be on the schedule later. Tennessee often plays their best football in November, while the Gators are sometimes out of breath by this time.
This was absolutely the case in 2021. The Vols ended the season with a bang, winning 3 of their last 4 games, while the Gators collapsed and sacked head coach Dan Mullen.
Tennessee’s 38-14 loss on September 25 at Gainesville still hurts.
Weak: Disappointing Joe Milton
Watching the Tennessee Spring Game, you couldn’t help but notice Michigan transfer quarterback Joe Milton, especially the absolute cannon he has for a right-hand man. That was never the problem.
Milton was Heupel’s choice heading into the 2021 season, but in Week 2 Milton was ineffective and injured in the loss to Pittsburgh. He never got back on track. His problems with accuracy brought back bad memories of the Jarrett Guarantano era.
Milton will have the opportunity to succeed in Tennessee, but not if he fails to line up his shots.