UVA Opponents Series: Tennessee boasts one of nation’s top offenses in opener

Countdown to Kickoff

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a 12-part series previewing Virginia’s 2023 opponents, compiled by correspondents Harry Farley and Clay Meeks

By Clay Meeks
JerryRatcliffe.com Correspondent

Joe Milton III (Photo: Avery Bane | Tennessee Athletics)

Tennessee finds itself coming off of a highly successful 2022 season, and a trend of improvement is in mind for the Volunteers. Having suffered only two losses last season, one of those being to national champion Georgia, what can Virginia expect from this SEC program in this Saturday’s opener in Nashville?

Since 2020, this Vols squad has seen consistent improvement, tripling their wins to earn a 6-2 conference record in 2022. This comes alongside a coaching change in 2021, with three-year head coach Jeremy Pruitt (who was fired for a number of NCAA violations) being replaced by former Central Florida coach Josh Heupel.

Heupel’s impact on this program has been extraordinary. Joining Heupel will be defensive coordinator Tim Banks, and on the other side of the ball will be offensive coordinator Joey Halzle.

There’s no doubt the Tennessee offense will prove a challenge for any matchup. The Vols were ranked No. 1 nationally in offense last season, putting up a whopping 599 points, at an average of 46 per game. The Vols play a balanced game, with 134 of their first downs earned by rushing, and 155 by passing from quarterback Hendon Hooker, who exhausted his eligibility after suffering a season-ending injury late in the campaign. A change to the quarterback position is on the way, with strong-armed senior Joe Milton taking over (he’s 6-foot-5, 240 pounds and can run).

When asked about how much it means to be able to play more guys this fall, Heupel said, “I think it is important that we are deeper than we have been. On the offensive side of the ball, we were really fortunate to avoid injury. Defensively, we got nicked up in our secondary; that hurt us late in the year. The depth, we are in a different spot than we were when we first got here that fall. We have continued to grow with the depth on our roster. We have length and athleticism on the back end and at the offensive skill spots. We are bigger and thicker and stronger and more athletic on the offensive and defensive line. At the end of the day, that depth is important at the start, and it is really important as you get into the meat of the season.

“Defensively, in particular, we want to be able to play more guys than we have the first couple of years. That is true on the back level, but it is also true of the front seven. It is important guys prove they are going to play at a high level. If they do that, then it is our job to find a role.”

With eight Vols returning to the defensive starting lineup, Heupel is correct to trust his now experienced defensive line, and the offense may find a little more room to develop as pressure is taken off of them.

Historically, the Cavaliers have had few matchups with Tennessee (their last meeting was in the 1991 Sugar Bowl at the conclusion of the 1990 season), and have lost three of the four games played. ESPN predicts a 90.4-percent chance of a Vols victory this Saturday. Following this, Tennessee will face a tough SEC schedule, facing off against teams such as Alabama in October, and will be given a chance for redemption against Georgia in early November. 

Tennessee Volunteers

Saturday, Sept. 2
Nissan Stadium
Nashville, Tennessee
Head Coach: Josh Heupel
2022 Overall W-L: 11-2
2022 SEC Conference Record: 6-2
Offensive starters returning: 6
Defensive starters returning: 8
All-time record against UVA: 3-1
Last matchup against UVA: January 1, 1991 — 23-22 Tennessee
Top 6 players to watch: QB Joe Milton III, LB Aaron Beasley, RB Jaylen Wright, RB Jabari Small, WR Squirrel White, OL Jackson Lampley