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AP photo by Wade Payne / Tennessee football coach Josh Heupel watches during the first half of Saturday's regular-season finale against Vanderbilt in Knoxville.

Relax, Vol Nation. Josh Heupel isn't going to leave Rocky Top after a single season to run the Oklahoma football program. Or run any other program for that matter.

But most especially not OU, even though he led the Sooners to a national championship and was runner-up for the Heisman Trophy during his two seasons there as a player, as well as being a Sooner assistant for almost a decade.

That's because his coach at Oklahoma, one "Big Game Bob" Stoops — the man who also failed to renew Heupel's contract as co-offensive coordinator following the 2014 season — just may be pulling the strings on who'll replace Lincoln Riley, who shocked the football world on Sunday by taking the Southern Cal job.

In one of the stranger interim tags ever placed on someone, OU athletic director Joe Castiglioni tabbed Stoops to be the interim coach for the Sooners through whichever bowl game they play.

Given that Stoops retired five years ago while handing the reins of one of college football's most storied programs to Riley, this would seem somewhat equivalent to UT placing an interim tag on former Vols head coach and athletic director Phil Fulmer.

What makes this a positive for the Big Orange where Heupel is concerned is that the current Tennessee coach and the former Sooners coach have apparently not spoken to each other since Heupel was let go.

Beyond that, Heupel later told the Orlando Sentinel in what could only be perceived as a shot at Stoops: "In those last two years at Oklahoma, we changed for two reasons. No. 1, because of the philosophy of the head coach and what he wanted to do. And No. 2, because of injuries. We played five quarterbacks in those last two years because of injuries."

In other words, the offense didn't bog down because of Heupel, at least in his mind, but because of restrictions placed on him by Stoops.

There's also Tennessee athletic director Danny White to consider. While Stoops once gave Heupel the pink slip, White gave Heupel the keys to one of the sports' most historically significant programs, even if it was one badly in need of a total makeover.

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Tennessee Athletics photo / Emotional senior cornerback Alontae Taylor shares an embrace with Tennessee first-year coach Josh Heupel during Saturday's senior day ceremony that preceded the 45-21 dumping of Vanderbilt.

White's reputation as a hotshot AD is more than a little bit tied to Heupel, who should be strongly considered for Southeastern Conference Coach of the Year honors following this season's 7-5 overall record and 4-4 league mark that included losses to SEC title game participants Georgia and Alabama. Both the Dawgs and Tide trailed UT at some point in those games. A couple of years from now, if the Vols continue to improve, the Big Orange might record big wins against both SEC giants.

Point is, since White thought enough of Heupel to hire him away from both men's previous employer Central Florida, Heupel knows he has a boss who's firmly in his corner. That should probably guarantee the coach a raise sooner than later — almost assuredly up a cool million to $5 mil per by Christmas, and possibly more than that — as well as assuring him that White will stick by him through any rough patch since their careers are so closely intertwined.

And while it may have been nothing more than coach-speak, something Heupel told Jim Rome of CBS Sports Radio last winter also bears repeating. In discussing why he took the Tennessee gig, Heupel said, in part: "This is the flagship program inside of the state. The passion and energy that surrounds our program 365 days out of the year is unmatched anywhere in college football. For me, the great passion and energy has always been in being in a place where you're building something, you're creating something."

Many of those words would also quite accurately describe the OU program, of course. But one sentence would not. There is nothing to build, nothing to create at Oklahoma. Heupel would merely be attempting to match the outrageous success of Riley, who won Big 12 titles his first four seasons on the job, reaching the College Football Playoff twice. In a sense, while UT had almost nowhere to go but up under Heupel, the Sooners will have almost nowhere to go but down for anyone following Riley.

Does this mean Heupel won't take the job if asked? Not necessarily, especially if Oklahoma comes calling with $8-9 million per year. But that isn't likely. With Big Game Bob in Castiglioni's ear, it would be far more likely for OU to hire Stoops' younger brother Mark, the current Kentucky coach, possibly Cincinnati's Luke Fickell or Iowa State coach Matt Campbell, who's beaten Riley's Sooners twice. Big Game Bob might even decide to return for a second stint with the Sooners.

Finally, Heupel's UT buyout should scare off most schools, at least for this year, since it's a hefty $8 million.

So relax, Vol Nation. Instead, perhaps ready yourselves to welcome preseason Heisman favorite Spencer Rattler to UT after the Oklahoma quarterback entered the transfer portal Monday.

If Hendon Hooker decides to turn pro, Rattler could be just the guy to keep the quarterback whisperer Heupel on the short list of every athletic director in search of a new coach this time next year.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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