Thursday's 48-45 overtime loss to Purdue in the Music City Bowl was the final chapter of Josh Heupel's opening season as Tennessee's football coach.
The Volunteers were picked to finish fifth in the Southeastern Conference's Eastern Division but wound up third and defeated Kentucky, the East runner-up, at Lexington in early November. Tennessee won seven games after losing seven last season, and Heupel explained inside Nashville's Nissan Stadium that the sequel will start in late January.
"This was a great, competitive environment, and we ended up a play short, but we get a chance to come back and start the process all over again," Heupel said. "If we can continue to buy into that process and each other, we have a chance to do something special next year."
Tennessee was plenty special on offense this season, averaging 474.9 yards and 39.3 points per game. The Vols had never scored 500 points in a season but wound up with 511, tallying more than 30 points nine times in 13 contests.
The team was headed by graduate transfer quarterback Hendon Hooker and redshirt junior receiver Cedric Tillman, an unlikely tandem on Labor Day weekend, and each is coming back to Knoxville for more. Tillman amassed 1,081 receiving yards, while Hooker racked up 31 touchdown passes while throwing just three interceptions.
"As soon as we get back, on the first day of workouts, me and Ced are already planning on staying out there and getting some of those young guys out there to stay and do some pitch and catch and watch some extra film as well," Hooker said. "I see this as motivation and something that we can build off of. We'll be remembering this loss, and to change the narrative will be big."
When his Vols reconvene, Heupel may finally feel all caught up. He began 2021 planning to be the University of Central Florida's coach for a fourth season, but those plans changed after a January in which Jeremy Pruitt was fired as Tennessee's coach and Danny White went from being UCF's athletic director to the same role with the Vols, which ultimately included the hiring of Heupel.
Heupel was constantly having to rush after taking the new job, but now he's on far steadier ground.
"It will be completely different, because you're able to put a plan together for your second semester before the second semester starts," Heupel said. "In that way, it will be good for myself and my staff and our players."
Tennessee's 2021 season was never boring, from the late-game chaos against Ole Miss to the instant burials of Missouri and South Carolina to the Vols holding their own versus Alabama and Georgia until the overflow of opposing talent took over. Those who played for this season's team proudly claim to be part of the foundation of what they expect will be a highly successful era.
"The thing that stuck out to me the most was the growth," fifth-year senior safety Theo Jackson said after playing his final game with the Vols. "Coming off of last year, we were all falling apart, and as soon as Coach Heup and his staff got here, it just started. Everything was way higher than what we had it.
"I've seen a lot of change in the young guys, so growth is really the biggest thing."
Odds and ends
Tennessee's 511 points this season broke the program mark of 484 back in 1993, and the Vols also tallied 67 touchdowns, topping the 63 by the 2016 team. ... The Vols averaged a nation-leading 14.6 points during the first quarter. The defense racked up 102 tackles for loss, which also set a new program standard. ... Hooker set Vols single-season records for efficiency (182.01) and accuracy (68.2%). ... Graduate transfer kicker Chase McGrath made all of his 66 extra-point attempts.