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2021 Tennessee college football preview: Volunteers enter season in full-on rebuild mode

Tennessee has a long way to go to get to where they feel they should be as a program as they enter Year 1 under Josh Heupel.

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel Caitie McMekin/News Sentinel via Imagn Content Services, LLC

The Tennessee Volunteers spent the past two decades trying to return to college football’s elite. Heading into the 2021 season, the Vols are extremely far away from coming anywhere near that status. UT will welcome in another new head coach, and they are dealing with recruiting violations in the program.

Josh Heupel was hired by his former boss at Central Florida in Danny White, but has his work cut out for him in getting Tennessee back on the right track. Expectations are extremely limited in Year 1, though the Volunteers brought in some quality transfers that should see the field right away. But they lost plenty of talent to the portal, and this is in full-on rebuild mode right now. Reaching a bowl game would likely be seen as a huge success in 2021.

2020 Season Review

  • 3-7 SEC (5th in East)
  • Won first two games, went on a six-game losing streak in the middle, all seven losses were by double digits.

2021 Talent

2021 247Sports Composite Ranking: 22
ESPN Returning Production: 54% overall (117th): 53% offense (103rd), 54% defense (107th)
Returning Talent Index: Negative, 10th in SEC
Returning starters: 5/11 offense, 7/11 defense
* All rankings out of 130 FBS schools

Key Player

Quarterback: Hendon Hooker (Senior)

The Tennessee quarterback position is anyone’s guess at this point, and the likely candidates are Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker, Michigan transfer Joe Milton and Harrison Bailey, who appeared in six games for Tennessee in 2020. We’re going with the senior of the group with Hooker to be the starter. He started each of the last two seasons for the Hokies and completed 63.1% of his passes for 2,894 yards with 22 touchdowns and seven interceptions in that span and is a real rushing threat.

Offense (non-QB): RB Tiyon Evans (Junior)

Tennessee’s two leading rushers from last season Eric Gray and Ty Chandler both transferred out of the program, and the Volunteers brought in Tiyon Evans. He was ranked as the No. 1 junior college running back and will likely make an impact right away in the Tennessee rushing attack.

Defense: LB Aaron Willis (Freshman)

Tennessee’s linebacker position took a big hit with a number of departures to the transfer portal. There is plenty of room for playing time at the position, and true freshman Aaron Willis will be a player to watch this season. He is the top-rated prospect in the team’s 2021 class and has not gotten off to the best start as he was among a few players who were arrested in March. If he behaves and is in good standing, Willis has an opportunity to make a difference in his true freshman season.

Team Stats Projections

2020 SP+ final: 50th overall: 74th offense, 34th defense, 56th special teams
2021 SP+ projection: 49th overall: 73rd offense, 40th defense

Odds from DraftKings Sportsbook

To win national title: +25000
To win SEC: +10000
Win total: 6 (Over +110, Under -139)

2020 Against The Spread: 3-6-1
2020 Point Total: Over 3-7-0

2021 Tennessee Schedule

2021 Tennessee Football Schedule

Date Opponent Time (ET)/TV Spread/Total
Date Opponent Time (ET)/TV Spread/Total
Thursday, Sep. 2 Bowling Green 8:00pm/SECN UT -33
Saturday, Sep. 11 Pitt 12:00pm/ESPN N/A
Saturday, Sep. 18 Tennessee Tech 12:00pm/ESPN+ N/A
Saturday, Sep. 25 at Florida TBA N/A
Saturday, Oct. 2 at Missouri TBA N/A
Saturday, Oct. 9 South Carolina TBA N/A
Saturday, Oct. 16 Ole Miss TBA N/A
Saturday, Oct. 23 at Alabama TBA N/A
Saturday, Oct. 30 OPEN TBA N/A
Saturday, Nov. 6 at Kentucky TBA N/A
Saturday, Nov. 13 Georgia TBA N/A
Saturday, Nov. 20 South Alabama TBA N/A
Saturday, Nov. 27 Vanderbilt TBA N/A