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AP photo by Wade Payne / Tennessee football coach Josh Heupel has led the Vols to records of 4-2 overall and 2-1 in SEC play midway through his first regular season heading the program.

A prediction: By the 2024 season, Tennessee will reach the College Football Playoff.

A second prediction: Josh Heupel, currently in his first season leading the Volunteers, will be the 2021 Southeastern Conference football coach of the year.

This isn't based solely on Saturday's 45-20 win over South Carolina, which began with the Vols ahead 28-0 after the first quarter. Consideration was also given to what happened last weekend at Missouri, where the Vols led 28-3 after one quarter before winning 62-24.

Said offensive Swiss army knife Velus Jones Jr. of such obscene offensive firepower after beating South Carolina: "Scoring is fun. Everybody's smiling. You can feel the energy."

All this from a team that went 3-7 against an SEC-only schedule last year and was predicted to finish fifth in the seven-team East Division by the media in July, just ahead of South Carolina and Vanderbilt but behind Missouri.

"We want to be the fastest, most aggressive team on the field," Heupel said after the Vols' fourth win in six outings and their second SEC win against a single defeat. "You can see the fun we're having, see how hard we're playing."

That's his message to the recruits he'll need to elevate the Vols from perhaps the biggest surprise in college football this season to where the program can again win championships on the sport's biggest stages.

And it's hard to imagine such proof isn't resonating with those recruits, especially when the team's past two SEC games have produced a scoring average of 50.4 points and twin 28-point first quarters. If this is what can happen in year one with Heupel, how much fun and how powerful will the Big Orange be in year three or four?

Said quarterback Hendon Hooker of opposing defenses attempting to adjust to the offense's pace: "You can never get used to that. It's not possible."

It's apparently so daunting that when the SEC Network asked all-time Tennessee defensive great Al Wilson — who spoke to the team after the South Carolina win — how he might attack Heupel's O, he replied, "I have no idea."

Beyond that, it's not like the Vols' defense has been all that suspect of late. While upcoming opponent Ole Miss was beating Arkansas 52-51 on Saturday, the Vols' average margin of victory in these past two SEC contests has been just more than 30 points. Given the injuries the defense has recently endured — no fewer than five starters were out against the Gamecocks — it's even tough to say which has been more impressive, the offense or the defense.

Pointing to those defensive absences, Heupel rightly said of the South Carolina win, "There's lots to be proud of."

But it's going forward that there's lots to be excited about. After all, this is Heupel's first season on the job. As he said a week ago after blowing out Mizzou on the road, "This is the tip of the iceberg."

To hammer home that point, he talked about the players' progress to date.

"The great thing about this group of guys is that they care about each other, they're prideful," he said Saturday after glancing at a stat sheet that showed the Vols piled up 373 yards of offense in the opening half alone while heading to the break with a 38-7 lead over the Gamecocks.

"And they're growing really good habits. How they practice. How they meet. If we continue on that path, we've got a chance to be a better football team next Saturday when we get on the field."

To be sure, the road to success is about to get much tougher. Ole Miss and former Vols coach Lane Kiffin next weekend in Knoxville. At top-ranked Alabama the week after that. An off week before visiting Kentucky. Then a visit from Georgia. If you're scoring at home, that's four straight games against teams currently ranked in The Associated Press Top 25 over a span of five weeks.

Beyond that, who knows which players Heupel will have healthy for those contests?

There is also justifiable concern Heupel could experience a slight slippage a year from now before the Vols mount a lasting resurgence. This is a pretty old team due to graduate transfers, super seniors borne of the NCAA's eligibility waiver amid the coronavirus pandemic, and the like. Hooker has already graduated from Virginia Tech. No fewer than 12 players on the two-deep chart, including special teams starters, are graduates, while six are super seniors. So next year's team might easily be more talented athletically but also less mature and experienced.

But those worries are for later. For now, everything is fun and exciting, right down, at least for some folks, to the black uniforms the team wore against the Gamecocks.

Said Jones of those alternate unis: "Got to save them for a couple of weeks down the line."

That, of course, would be the Alabama game, though as the road team, it's doubtful the Crimson Tide would consider letting Tennessee don such attire in Tuscaloosa, because visitors usually wear white.

Yet with or without those unis, the Vols will still take their new fast, aggressive style with them to Bama's Bryant-Denny Stadium.

And just in case anyone's concerned Tennessee can't get much better between now and then, Hooker said late Saturday afternoon, "We're just starting to really jell and get a good feel for one another."

If back-to-back 28-point first quarters are just the start, the Vols' stretch run should be something to behold.

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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