Vols tabbed No. 1 in season’s first College Football Playoff rankings

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee junior receiver Jalin Hyatt, who leads the nation with 14 touchdown receptions, is a huge reason the Volunteers are the No. 1 team in the inaugural College Football Playoff rankings.

Tennessee's stellar second football season under coach Josh Heupel now contains a No. 1 ranking.

The Volunteers, who are 8-0 with victories over five ranked teams, claimed the top spot Tuesday night in the inaugural release of the College Football Playoff rankings for the 2022 season. Ohio State (8-0) was ranked No. 2, edging out No. 3 Georgia (8-0), which will host Tennessee on Saturday afternoon.

Tuesday night's ranking for the Vols occurred 21 months after Heupel's hiring amid an NCAA investigation for violations that occurred under predecessor Jeremy Pruitt that followed a three-win season in 2020.

"One of the things that actually had our players buy into what we're doing is that we never set a ceiling," Heupel said on ESPN moments after the revealing. "Obviously our guys and their habits have allowed us to play consistently here in the early part of the season.

"There is a long way to go, and we obviously have a huge test this weekend in Athens, Georgia, but I love competing with this team every Saturday."

Tennessee's only previous appearances in the CFP rankings, which were introduced in 2014, occurred during the final two weeks of the 2015 season, when they were 25th and 23rd. Heupel told ESPN that he discussed Tuesday's CFP selection show with his players this week.

"We didn't know where we would be ranked, but we figured we would be somewhere near the top," Heupel said. "At the end of the day, we've tried to enjoy the journey and take moments to pause and reflect and enjoy what our players have built. They've built this.

"Three years ago, it didn't look like this, but this is a proud tradition and a massive fan base that loves the 'Power T' and is excited about the way our players are playing."

Clemson (8-0) claimed the No. 4 spot, with Michigan (8-0), Alabama (7-1), TCU (8-0), Oregon (7-1), Southern California (7-1) and LSU (6-2) rounding out the top 10. Ole Miss (8-1) was No. 11, giving the Southeastern Conference five of the top 11 teams.

Asked what put the Vols ahead of the Buckeyes and Bulldogs, CFP committee chair and North Carolina State athletic director Boo Corrigan said, "When you look at the three teams, and all three are very, very good teams that the committee really, really like, I think the two wins that you're looking at with Alabama and at LSU really sealed the day for Tennessee."

Georgia is No. 3 despite being the defending national champion and the No. 1 team in the Associated Press and USA Today coaches polls. Bulldogs seventh-year coach Kirby Smart said Monday that the CFP standings would not impact Saturday's showdown in Sanford Stadium.

"We don't prepare for games any differently based on rankings," Smart said. "It's a big game, right? It's nothing about a number being in front of it. It would be a big game regardless because both teams are in the (SEC) East."

Tennessee players don't believe the rankings will serve as a distraction, either.

"We're just really taking it game by game," junior defensive tackle Omari Thomas said. "We know what the end goal is for our team, but we can't look that far ahead. We're just really focusing on game by game, and Georgia is the next game, so we're focusing on Georgia and trying to get that win there."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.

  photo  Tennessee wide receiver Jalin Hyatt (11) catches a pass in the end zone for a touchdown during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Kentucky, Saturday, Oct. 29, 2022, in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)
 Wade Payne