Updated at 8:45 p.m. on Nov. 28, 2021, with Lincoln Riley's hire at USC official.
Minutes after Tennessee's first regular season under football coach Josh Heupel came to a close with a 45-21 defeat of Vanderbilt inside Neyland Stadium, it was natural for the older players to reminisce and the younger players to dream of even brighter days ahead.
The Volunteers will take a 7-5 record into an undetermined bowl game that included a 4-4 record in Southeastern Conference play, with three of their league wins transpiring by at least 24 points. Tennessee was picked before the season to finish fifth in the SEC East but wound up alone in third in the division and having knocked off second-place finisher Kentucky, 45-42, in Lexington earlier this month.
"With this being the first year of Coach Heupel, we haven't reached the peak or the ceiling of where we could be in the next coming years," sophomore running back Jabari Small said after amassing 103 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries Saturday against the Commodores. "I'm very excited to see the whole team buy in to what Coach Heupel is doing. We have some young players, and it's our first year in the system.
"The future is bright."
Will the University of Oklahoma wind up spoiling the mood?
The University of Southern California filled its head coaching vacancy Sunday by hiring Lincoln Riley away from Oklahoma, thus creating an opening at Heupel's alma mater. Heupel quarterbacked the Sooners to their most recent national championship in 2000 and was an OU offensive assistant from 2006-14, though he was fired by former coach Bob Stoops after that 2014 season.
Heupel has predicted a bright future in Knoxville as well after enhancing his career mark to 35-13, which includes his 28-8 ledger at the University of Central Florida from 2018-20. His up-tempo offensive system coupled with aggressive defensive play produced first-year dividends, but he must replace multiple key leaders such as offensive tackle Cade Mays, receivers Velus Jones Jr. and JaVonta Payton, defensive tackle Matthew Butler and defensive backs Theo Jackson and Alontae Taylor.
Although touted high school prospects saw an exciting, new Tennessee brand this autumn, the reality of this 2022 recruiting cycle is that Heupel's hiring in late January following the firing of predecessor Jeremy Pruitt put the Vols in a sizable hole. The Vols have 15 commitments in a class that 247Sports.com ranked 28th nationally and 10th among SEC teams as of Sunday afternoon.
Heupel and his assistants will continue trying to make up whatever ground is left between now and the early signing period that starts Dec. 15.
"Our staff will be on the road recruiting, and that kind of becomes the forefront here for the next week or two," Heupel said. "We'll be back next weekend and have a bowl practice or two. For our guys, they'll have a day or two off during the course of the week, but we'll get back in the weight room a little bit, too."
Graduate transfer quarterback Hendon Hooker has a 182.15 efficiency rating through the regular season, which is easily tops in Tennessee single-season history and ranks 21st all-time. Current Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud is 20th all-time with a rating of 182.24.
Hooker, who joined the Vols in January after four years at Virginia Tech, has completed 180 of 261 passes (69.0%) for 2,567 yards with 26 touchdowns and only three interceptions.
Odds and ends
Tennessee's third-down defense improved in the past two games, against South Alabama and Vandy, which resulted in the Vols moving up from 125th nationally in that category to 103rd. ... The Vols finished the regular season seventh nationally in tackles for loss with 94, or 7.83 per game. .. Tennessee's average of 24 minutes and three seconds of possession time ranked last in the Football Bowl Subdivision, a whopping 1:47 per game less than Connecticut, which finished 129th.