Today is the sixth day of Gridiron Heroics’ SEC preview ahead of the 2022 season. Each day, we will break down one team from the East and West Division. Giving you a position-by position analysis, and tell you what they need to do to advance to the postseason. Join as we delve deep into the South’s spectacular obsession, SEC football.
We break down the 14 teams that make up the SEC. Check it out, team by team:
SEC CONF. PREVIEW: Overall SEC Conf. Preview
SEC EAST PREVIEWS: Florida | Georgia | Kentucky | Mizzou | South Carolina | Tennessee | Vanderbilt
SEC WEST PREVIEWS: Alabama | Arkansas | Auburn | LSU | Mississippi State | Ole Miss | Texas A&M
Tennessee exceeded expectations in the 2021 season by finishing with an overall record of 7-6. By no means is 7-6 the end goal for Tennessee fans, but the way the roster was set up before Heupel arrival was less than ideal. The way that Heupel was able to manufacture the roster turnover in the offseason leading up to the 2021 season was spectacular. Heupel showcased an offense that exploded in 2021 and the expectation will be the same in 2022.
Tennessee will return firepower on the offensive side heading into Josh Heupel’s second year with the program. The Volunteers’ offense in 2021 broke multiple records with their high-scoring offense that averaged 39.3 PPG. It is hard not to get excited for this upcoming season for the Tennessee Volunteers with the talent that will be coming back on both sides of the ball. The offense will be led by quarterback Hendon Hooker, wide receiver Cedric Tillman and running back Jabari Small.
The defense struggled early on in the 2021 season, before finding their groove late in the year. The secondary will need to improve if Tennessee wants to reach their ceiling in 2022. Opponents were able to find success in the Tennessee secondary where they were able to gain 273.2 yards per game. The freshman in the secondary will have to step up. Tennessee lost Alontae Taylor and Theo Jackson in the offseason, both played key roles in the backend of the Volunteer defense.
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THE TEAM: Tennessee Volunteers
THE MENTOR: Josh Heupel (2nd year, 7-6 record)
THE 2021 RECORD (SEC RECORD): 7-6 (4-4)
THE AFTER LIFE: LOST Music City Bowl (lost to Purdue, 48-45)
THE FIVE STUDS (STATS): Hendon Hooker, QB (3,561 total yards of offense, 2,945 passing yards, 31 touchdowns, 616 yards rushing and five touchdowns); Cedric Tillman, WR (64 catches, 1,081 yards and 12 touchdowns); Jabari Small, RB (141 carries, 796 rushing yards, nine touchdowns and 77 receiving yards on nine catches); Jeremy Banks, LB (128 total tackles, 59 solo tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, one interception, three pass breakups and three QB hurries); Byron Young, DL/LB (46 total tackles, 20 solo tackles, 5.5 sacks, 11.5 tackles for loss and eight QB hurries)
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THE GOOD: The good news for Tennessee fans on the offensive side is that the Volunteers return eight offensive starters including: Hendon Hooker, Cedric Tillman and Jabari Small. Quarterback Hendon Hooker set a school record for passing efficiency and had a TD-to-interception ratio (31-3). The Virginia Tech transfer was able to convert well to the SEC landscape as he returns as one of the best quarterbacks in the league.
Cedric Tillman had a breakout year in 2021 (64 receptions, 1,081 yards and 12 touchdowns). Tillman will once again be the featured wide receiver in the Tennessee offense. The Tennessee offense will also return star running back, Jabari Small. In the receiving core, Jalin Hyatt has been impressing so far in the spring and will be a part of an explosive Tennessee offense in 2022. Small was able to rush for 796 yards and nine touchdowns in Tennessee’s historic 2021 season on the offensive side of the ball.
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Tennessee will also be strong on the offensive line and can be one of the league’s best if they can each stay healthy. The Volunteers offensive line dealt with injuries throughout the 2021 season. Tennessee returns four starters, including tackle Darnell Wright and guard Jerome Carvin.
Tennessee will once again be stable in the special teams category with kicker Chase McGrath and punter Paxton Brooks returning to the Volunteers. McGrath made 12 of 16 field-goal attempts in 2021 and all 66 of his PAT’s. Brooks was second best in the SEC with averaging 42.1 yards in net punting average.
On the defensive side, Tennessee will bring back veteran linebacker, Jeremy Banks. The Volunteers were able to get to the opponent’s backfield in 2021 with a program-record 102 tackles for loss. Along with Banks, Tennessee returns their core on the defensive line. Edge rushers, Byron Young and Tyler Baron, will once again main the front line of the defense. There is also experience at the safety position with Trevon Flowers and Jaylen McCollough returning. The star duo accounted for five interceptions in 2021.
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THE BAD: There really isn’t many holes with this Tennessee team heading into the 2022 season. The only real question mark on the offensive side of the ball is replacing Cade Mays at right tackle and the receiving group having less experience.
There is some unproven potential in the wide receiver room for the Volunteers. There is no question that Tillman will be slotted as the WR1 in the depth chart, but how it shakes up after that will be a question mark. The Volunteers will have to rely on Jalin Hyatt (21 catches, 226 yards and two touchdowns) to have a breakout season.
Tennessee did lose Velus Jones Jr. and Javonta Payton in the offseason. So, other notable wide receivers that could fill that gap are: Jimmy Calloway, Ramel Keyton, Chas Nimrod, Kaleb Webb and Marquarius White. Tennessee fans will keep an eye out on these four studs that can make a splash for Tennessee’s offense in 2022. Tennessee also added USC transfer wide receiver, Bru McCoy, into the mix.
The other question mark for Tennessee on the offensive side will be filling the shoes of Cade Mays at right tackle. The offensive line had a rough go in 2021 dealing with injuries. They have the potential to put the pieces together as long as they can stay healthy.
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THE UGLY: The Tennessee defense struggled in majority of the 2021 season. In 2021, the Volunteer defense struggled on third downs. Opponents were able to convert on 42.1 percent of third downs and the Volunteers gave up 273.3 passing yards. That ranked Tennessee dead last in the SEC.
The Volunteers have big shoes to fill in the secondary with notable departures. Defensive tackle Matthew Butler, defensive backs Theo Jackson and Alontae Taylor are gone. Cornerback development will be key for Tennessee’s defense to hit their stride in 2022.
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BIGGEST NON-CONF GAME OF THE YEAR (AND WHY): Tennessee’s non-conference schedule will feature Ball State, Pittsburgh, Akron and UT Martin. Tennessee will handle Ball State, Akron and UT Martin with ease.
The most important non-conference game for Tennessee will be the road trip to Pennsylvania to take on Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh got the best of Tennessee in Neyland Stadium in 2021. The Panthers won in a high- scoring shootout, 41-34. Pittsburgh will be without two of their key offensive weapons from last year’s team in Kenny Pickett and Jordan Addison. The Panthers did bring in USC transfer, Kedon Slovis, to replace Pickett at the starting quarterback position.
Tennessee will be looking for revenge against Pittsburgh. This will be Tennessee’s first true road test of the 2022 season before SEC play begins on September 24th when they take on Florida at home.
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BIGGEST CONF. GAME OF THE YEAR (AND WHY): Tennessee has some big games on the schedule inside the conference. The biggest ones for Tennessee fans every year is the “Third Saturday in October” rivalry game against Alabama.
Alabama got the best of Tennessee in 2021, when the Crimson Tide got the win in Bryant-Denny Stadium, 52-24. It’s hard not to get excited about the 2022 version of this game with the talent coming back for both teams. Bryce Young and Hendon Hooker will get a chance to battle it out. There should be a lot of point scored in this matchup between the Crimson Tide and the Volunteers.
That game will be played in Neyland Stadium. The Volunteers chances of ending a 15-year stretch of losing to Alabama rises. This should be one of the most anticipated matchups in the SEC in 2022.
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DARKHORSE THREAT ON THE SKED (AND WHY): The matchup that needs to be circled for Tennessee fans is a road date with LSU on October 8th. The game in “Death Valley” is sandwich between two home games. The Florida game being the week prior and the Alabama game being the week after.
Depending on what the scheduled time of this game, whether that is a 2:30 kickoff or a night game, could be the factor of how hostile that environment will be. Regardless of the time, Tennessee will be making it’s first road trip to Tiger Stadium, since the 2010 season. LSU will be one of those sneaky teams in the SEC West that has the talent to pull off an upset when it’s least expected. Tennessee shouldn’t overlook this matchup and can’t get too ahead of themselves looking at the Alabama game in the next week.
THE HAPPY HISTORY NUGGET: Tennessee has won six national championships (1938, 1940, 1950, 1951, 1967 and 1998). The Volunteers hold 16 conference titles (13 SEC, 2 Southern and 1 SIAA). Tennessee has also won six division titles (1997, 1998, 2001, 2003, 2004 and 2007).
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WHICH TEAMS WILL THEY BEAT?: Ball State, Pittsburgh, Akron, Florida, UT Martin, Kentucky, Missouri, South Carolina and Vanderbilt
WHICH TEAMS WILL THEY LOSE TO?: LSU, Alabama and Georgia
FINAL RECORD, POSTSEASON PREDICTION?: 9-3 in the regular season (Citrus Bowl in Orlando vs. Wisconsin)
PRESEASON ALL-SEC PLAYERS:: Second-Team Offense–Hendon Hooker, QB (3,561 total yards of offense, 2,945 yards, 31 touchdowns, rushed for 616 yards and five touchdowns); Second-Team Offense–Cedric Tillman, WR (64 catches, 1,081 yards and 12 touchdowns); Second-Team Offense–Darnell Wright, OL (saw a team-high snap count of 922 on the season); Third-Team Offense–Cooper Mays, C (saw action on 480 offensive snaps during the year)
First-Team Defense–Byron Young, DL/LB (46 total tackles, 20 solo tackles, 5.5 sacks, 11.5 tackles for loss and eight QB hurries); Third-Team Defense–Jeremy Banks, LB (128 total tackles, 59 solo tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, one interception, three pass breakups and three QB hurries); Third-Team Defense–Trevon Flowers, DB (82 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, one sack, three pass breakups, three QB hurries and two interceptions); Third-Team Specialists–Paxton Brooks, P/PK (44.0 punting average, logged 11 punts over 50 yards, including a long of 64. Attempted nine kickoffs for an average of 56.8 yards with two touchbacks)
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