Heupel to relive the past, focus on the present at the Orange Bowl

Oklahoma Athletics photo / Former Oklahoma quarterback and current Tennessee second-year coach Josh Heupel is carried off the field after the Sooners defeated Florida State in the BCS championship game of the 2000 season in Miami.

The impending Orange Bowl trip represents the present-day success of the Tennessee Volunteers and the potential of additional opportunities down the road.

For Vols second-year coach Josh Heupel, heading to Miami for the Dec. 30 pairing against Atlantic Coast Conference champion Clemson also will serve as an emotional stroll down memory lane.

Heupel's final performance as an Oklahoma quarterback transpired inside what is now Hard Rock Stadium on Jan. 3, 2001, when he guided the Sooners to a 13-2 triumph over Florida State in the Bowl Championship Series title game. Oklahoma entered that clash with a 12-0 record and a No. 1 ranking, but the 11-1 Seminoles were the defending national champions and 10.5-point favorites.

"It absolutely will bring back a lot of great memories," Heupel said. "I'm really excited about having an opportunity to lead a program in this football game. This game is extremely special to me.

"Already, I've had teammates let me know they'll be able to come to the ball game, guys who shared the field with me, so I'm really looking forward to this opportunity."

Heupel was named Tuesday as the Southeastern Conference coach of the year by the Associated Press, receiving six votes to five for LSU's Brian Kelly, three for Georgia's Kirby Smart and one for South Carolina's Shane Beamer. Vols sixth-year quarterback Hendon Hooker was voted the league's player of the year, becoming the first from Tennessee to win that honor since Peyton Manning in 1997.

Phillip Fulmer in 1998 was the last from Tennessee to earn SEC coach of the year before Monday.

The BCS championship matchup of the 2000 season was not without controversy, as the voters and computer components determined Florida State would be Oklahoma's opponent over Miami, which had an early September loss at Washington but had defeated the Seminoles in early October.

Florida State quarterback Chris Weinke had edged Heupel out for the 2000 Heisman Trophy, but Heupel was the far more efficient quarterback in that championship contest, as Weinke unraveled with two interceptions and a fumble. FSU's only points occurred on a safety when Oklahoma's punter fell on the ball in the end zone following a bad snap with 55 seconds left.

"When I look at it now, I think it should have been Miami and Oklahoma," Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden said afterward. "We didn't look like we belonged here."

Heupel returned to Miami for BCS championship games as an Oklahoma graduate assistant during the 2004 season and as the quarterbacks coach of the Sooners in the 2008 season but endured double-digit losses to Southern California and Florida in those encounters.

While Heupel may have to relive some of those times once his Vols arrive in Miami, his hope is for his players to be focused on Clemson.

"I think it's important that you enjoy the buildup and opportunity to see a new place, see a new culture and enjoy the festivities of the week, but the most important thing is the game," Heupel said. "When it's time to lock into your game preparation and your practices, you've got to be completely invested in those moments. At the end of the day and at the end of the week, you're going to get an opportunity to play in a very special game.

"This is an historic, iconic game, and a lot of these guys have grown up in an era of watching the importance of this game. I know I grew up in that as well. You're going to have the entire country watching this game given when it's slotted on TV. It's a special opportunity and a special moment, and it's a memory that you'll have forever."

Backfield departures

The NCAA transfer portal opened Monday, and Tennessee running backs Len'Neth Whitehead and Justin Williams-Thomas quickly entered.

Whitehead, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound redshirt sophomore from Athens, Georgia, has missed this season due to an upper-body injury sustained in July. He rushed 32 times for 207 yards (6.5 per carry) and two touchdowns last year and was named SEC co-freshman of the week after a nine-carry, 76-yard performance at Missouri.

Williams-Thomas was a four-star signee earlier this year out of East Paulding High in Dallas, Georgia, but the 6-foot, 210-pounder had just 11 carries for 37 yards in games against Ball State, Akron and UT Martin.

Whitehead and Williams-Thomas join tight end Miles Campbell and receivers Jimmy Calloway and Jimmy Holiday in leaving Tennessee's program.

Klubnik in charge

The most notable transfer portal participant Monday was Clemson junior quarterback DJ Uiagalelei, who has started the past two seasons for the Tigers. The former five-star signee struggled early in Saturday night's ACC title game and was replaced by five-star freshman Cade Klubnik, who completed 20 of 24 passes for 279 yards and a touchdown in the 39-10 whipping of North Carolina.

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said after the game that Klubnik would be the starter in the Orange Bowl.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.

photo Tennessee Athletics photo by Kate Luffman / Tennessee football coach Josh Heupel enjoys the celebration following the 52-49 upset of Alabama inside Neyland Stadium on Oct. 15.