The year Vols put the ‘Ten’ back in ‘Tennessee’

Tennessee Athletics photo by Emma Ramsey / Tennessee football fans take down the goal posts at Neyland Stadium following last Saturday’s 52-49 win over Alabama.

It wasn't the best moment of the University of Tennessee's 2022 football season.

It was just the most honest.

Minutes after the No. 3 Volunteers hammered No. 19 Kentucky 44-6 inside a decked-in-black Neyland Stadium on Oct. 29 to improve to 8-0, Tennessee junior defensive back Doneiko Slaughter was asked if he was surprised how far the program had come in such a short time.

"Yes," Slaughter responded. "Yes, I am."

Quarterback Hendon Hooker, defensive back Brandon Turnage and edge rusher Byron Young were sitting alongside Slaughter in that news conference and started laughing, but three nights later, the Vols were at the top of the sport as the No. 1 team in the College Football Playoff rankings.

It was as if Josh Heupel, in only 21 games as Tennessee's coach, had become "Field of Dreams" central character Ray Kinsella, who builds a magical baseball field amid the Iowa cornfields and says, "I have just created something totally illogical."

While not "totally illogical," Tennessee's run to a 10-2 regular season and a No. 6 ranking that has warranted an appearance in Friday night's Orange Bowl against No. 7 Clemson certainly qualifies as unexpected given the Vols' predicament in the winter of 2021. Tennessee had stumbled to a 3-7 record in the pandemic-shortened season of 2020 and had just fired coach Jeremy Pruitt after a university-led investigation, which uncovered major NCAA rules violations that had been committed by Pruitt and multiple members of his defensive staff.

The Vols had a better than expected 7-6 debut season under Heupel that ended with an overtime loss to Purdue in last December's Music City Bowl, and they began this season just outside the Associated Press Top 25. They entered the AP poll after a 59-10 opening rout of Ball State and never looked back.

"I am so proud of the accomplishments that we had on the football field," Heupel said earlier this month. "This is truly a team that's connected, and it's a team that competes extremely hard. We've been far from perfect, and that starts with me, but this group loves one another, and that's why we've turned this program in the right direction."

Tennessee's run to an 8-0 record included a 38-33 victory over Florida, a 40-13 shellacking of LSU inside Tiger Stadium and a 52-49 topping of Alabama on a 40-yard Chase McGrath field goal as time expired. The triumph by the Vols over the Crimson Tide on Oct. 15 snapped Alabama's 15-year series winning streak and resulted in a memorable Neyland Stadium field-storming that featured the tearing down of both goal posts.

"I know how much this has meant to the people of Tennessee and Vol Nation," Heupel said after enjoying a victory cigar, "and I'm so happy to win for everybody involved. It was a great night."

Tennessee's hopes of reaching 9-0 were denied in a 27-13 loss at reigning national champion Georgia, but the Vols were still in the playoff hunt and Hooker was still among the Heisman Trophy favorites after responding with a 66-24 thrashing of Missouri.

Then came Nov. 19, when the Vols traveled to South Carolina and were lambasted 63-38.

The Gamecocks hung more points on Tennessee than any team since 1893, and Hooker was finished as a college athlete due to a torn ACL early in the fourth quarter.

"That one stung for a while," Vols receiver Bru McCoy admitted last week. "I'm still not really over it."

Tennessee concluded its regular season with a 56-0 thrashing of Vanderbilt in Nashville and then basked in postseason awards, with Hooker earning Southeastern Conference offensive player of the year by the AP and a vote of league coaches. Heupel was the AP's selection for SEC coach of the year, and receiver Jalin Hyatt became the first Biletnikoff Award winner in program history after setting the school's single-season touchdown receptions standard at 15.

Overall, though, it was the year the Vols put the "Ten" back in "Tennessee."

"We are really proud of the steps that we're making," Heupel said. "The future is bright, and I would go to battle with these guys any day."

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