Thoughts around the nation: The disaster that is Tennessee football

A couple weeks ago, we took a look back at 2020. Today, we look ahead to 2021.

-What better spot to begin than the disaster that is Tennessee football?

Tennessee has their new athletic director/head coach combo. New AD Danny White, formally of Central Florida, is bringing along his old coach at UCF for the ride. Josh Heupel is the guy that the Vols think can lead them back to prominence.

It seems to be an impossible task as of late, and the hiring of Heupel has just as many celebrating as scratching their head. Heupel inherited an undefeated UCF team from Scott Frost but has trended downward in his three years as head coach. He started in 2018 at 12-0, then fell to 10-3 and last season finished 6-4.

Granted, it’s difficult at best to judge really any coach on last season’s results, but the arrow is definitely been pointing down.

Tennessee football is likely in for a couple years of rough road. Either scholarship reductions, a bowl ban, or possibly both, could make this even worse. The transfer portal in Knoxville has been loaded and with signing day coming up on Wednesday, it’s unlikely they’ll get much help on the recruiting trail with so much uncertainty.

I’m not convinced this is the best hire. Heupel’s record shows that even with the talent already in place, as noted, he’s trended down.

Now he’s waking into a complete disaster with a lot of talent, but the problem is there’s about 10 other teams in the conference that are simply more talented. Heupel took a UCF team from elite to very good to decent over three years. What’s he doing to do with a team in shambles?

On top of everything else, I’m concerned that Heupel will be used as the scapegoat for the next few years of rough football. Even if things go well, when things are cleaned up, would anyone really put it past Tennessee to say Heupel didn’t live up to expectations to make a big splash hire? Given how the Vols’ higher ups have handled other sticky situations, I certainly wouldn’t.

It’s worth noting how we got here…

-After an investigation within the program for recruiting violations, the Volunteers fired Jeremy Pruitt just a year after proclaiming the 2020s would be “the decade of the Vols.”

Pruitt started the decade off with a 3-7 record, and continued to reduce the program to a shell of its former self. Former coach and AD Phillip Fulmer “retired” during this mess, although he received buyout money that he would only get if he was fired. Makes you wonder…

Supposedly, recruiting had gotten so crazy that Tennessee football was handing prospects McDonald’s bags full of cash in a move that early 1980s SMU wishes they had thought of.

This is just the latest in a long line of missteps on Rocky Top that range from head-scratching to hilarious to down right embarrassing.

From winning the championship of life and having “five star hearts” (yes, Butch Jones actually said these words) to Derek Dooley explaining to his team how to properly bathe (yes, this actually happened too.) David Ubben of The Athletic recently ran down the top 30 craziest Tennessee moments of the last 10 years in what might just be the definition of a must-read article.

-Another major move in the head coaching ranks wasn’t actually a move. Northwestern signing Pat Fitzgerald to a 10-year contract was a great move. He was rumored to be a candidate in a few NFL jobs, but his home is in Evanston.

Northwestern is an incredibly difficult place to win and Fitzgerald has proven that and will win there. He’s 106-81 in 15 years leading the Wildcats with two division titles, including the 2020 season.

When this contract expires, Fitzgerald will be 56 years old, 13 years younger than Nick Saban is right now.  He’ll have been at Northwestern for 25 years.

It’s not out of the question for Fitzgerald to coach into his 70s, meaning 40+ years is attainable. In addition to being a beloved player from the 1995 Rose Bowl team, he’s arguably the best coach Northwestern has ever had — yes, even better than Ara Parseghian — so you can bet Fitzgerald will be leading the Wildcats as long as he wants.

-This is subject to change as we saw last year, but the 2021 ACC schedule was released and it doesn’t include Notre Dame. That means the Irish are right back to independence — right where they belong.

Notre Dame proved that even in a conference, not only can they win, they can make the playoff. Hopefully this puts the lazy and tired “they only win because they have no conference and play a soft schedule” narrative to bed for good.

The ACC schedule features some great games. One game that should be highlighted on everyone’s calendar, even though it might not be the greatest game on the field, is Florida State traveling to Clemson on October 30. The two had a war of words this season after the game was cancelled because of Covid issues. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney accused the Seminoles of dodging the contest, which naturally riled up just about everyone.

The ACC will play some great non-conference games this season too. None will be bigger than Clemson meeting Georgia in Charlotte on September 4. That might be a top four matchup and a possible College Football Playoff preview. A Notre Dame/North Carolina rematch in South Bend on October 30 will also provide great entertainment.

-I mentioned earlier that National Signing Day is coming up this Wednesday. There are some premier prospects that will commit, including 247 Sports’ third ranked prospect JT Tuimoloau, 48th ranked prospect Raesjon Davis and 86th ranked Brian Thomas Jr.

Alabama already has the highest rated class in rankings history and they could get even stronger if a few guys go their way. Ohio State, Georgia, LSU and Clemson round out the top 5.

-One of the most surprising classes so far is the 21st ranked Arkansas Razorbacks. Sam Pittman’s 3-7 record last year was much better than it looked given many people (including myself) didn’t think Arkansas would win a single game. Their prized recruit is 6’2 four star receiver Ketron Jackson, who had 22 offers including Alabama, Ohio State and LSU.

The Razorbacks’ class ranks higher than the likes of Iowa, Penn State, Oklahoma State and Virginia Tech. If their momentum on the recruiting trail can trigger momentum on the field, Arkansas can once again become a contender in the SEC West.

The problem with momentum next season is the schedule. Of course every SEC schedule will be difficult, but a non-conference meeting with Texas is only the beginning.

Arkansas will have to contend with a four game stretch that includes Texas A&M, at Georgia, at Ole Miss and Auburn. A few weeks later, they have a back to back at LSU and at Alabama. Expect to see progress in Fayetteville, but don’t expect to see it in the win/loss column.

-If you want a darkhorse playoff team as well as Heisman contender in 2021, you can find both in the same place. Look no further than the Arizona State Sun Devils, led by quarterback Jayden Daniels.

Arizona State played four games last season: they lost opener to USC by blowing a two score lead in about three minutes, lost to an improved UCLA, demolished Arizona and outscored Oregon State.

Not just Arizona State, but the entire PAC-12 was put in a bad spot with the will-we-won’t-we games of the 2020 season. No spring practice, limited fall camp, a cancelled season and then a backtrack on the cancellation really hurt everyone. With a full spring and fall of camp, ASU can reach their potential in 2021.

Arizona State averaged over 40 points per game over their four contests and Jayden Daniels was a major reason why. He’ll only be a sophomore, and he can do just about everything. He’s not afraid to take a hit to deliver the best throw he can make.

They’ll have  a great offensive line, including Texas A&M transfer Kellen Diesch, and the run game will be a major asset. On defense, the Sun Devils’ top 16 tacklers, including sack master Tyler Johnson and secondary standout Chase Lucas will anchor what might be a top 25 defense as well.

The schedule isn’t officially released yet, but we do know Arizona State gets five home games (Arizona, Colorado, Stanford, USC, Washington State) and four road games (Oregon State, UCLA, Utah and Washigton) and winnable non-conference games with Southern Utah, UNLV and BYU.

Let’s start the Rose Bowl hype right now. Arizona State will make noise in the PAC-12 as well as nationally. Don’t be surprised if they end up winning the entire conference. If they play to their potential, not only is the Rose Bowl a possibility, but there might be some College Football Playoff talk as well.