Josh Heupel has officially arrived. This morning The Athletic released its annual rankings for the top 25 coaches in college football. In an offseason victory for the Tennessee Vols, coach Josh Heupel has made his debut on the list.
The Athletic has ranked Coach Heupel as the 22nd best college football coach in the nation and the seventh best coach in the SEC. In-conference, Heupel is ranked behind Nick Saban, Kirby Smart, Brian Kelly, Jimbo Fisher, Mark Stoops, and Hugh Freeze. It’s a tough list to make but Josh Heupel has earned it, and the University of Tennessee is gearing up for what will hopefully be another banner year for the Vols.
Josh Heupel: The Numbers (So Far)
Heupel went 28-8 at UCF before taking the position in Knoxville where he has turned around a program that had been struggling mightily and undergone tremendous turnover in a relatively short span of time. In two seasons with Tennessee, Heupel is 18-8 with his most noteworthy season being in 2022 where the Vols finished 11-2, a feat unexpected by almost everyone.
Despite the loss of standout talent like Hendon Hooker, Cedric Tillman, and Jalin Hyatt, the Vols are moving into the coming season with talented veteran players like Joe Milton III and Bru McCoy, plus several allstar recruits including Nico Iamaleava, Arion Carter, and Daevin Hobbs. Josh Heupel and Tennessee’s 2023 recruiting class was ranked number nine by 247 Sports and number thirteen by ESPN at the end of 2022.
How Josh Heupel Differentiates Himself and the Vols From Competing Programs
Considering Josh Heupel’s success with the Vols so far (and perhaps my own bias), I am inclined to side with 247’s number nine ranking which puts Tennessee’s 2023 recruiting class in the top ten. A top three or five recruiting class would be great, but Heupel’s Vols have steadily held their own against some of their toughest competition; a top ten class is definitely something Josh Heupel can work with.
The Vols have to keep winning games to maintain the elevated status of their program and restore it to an elite level. Obviously, a big part of that is recruiting and Josh Heupel is recruiting well-without relying on NIL deals to attract potential commits. Recently, a top defensive end recruit in 2024’s recruiting class told On3 that he has heard stories of NIL deals at some schools, but with others-specifically Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama-he doesn’t think about the money, instead focusing on the relationships those universities work to build with players instead.
By focusing on relationship building rather than possible NIL deals during recruiting, Josh Heupel seems to be proving that his commitment is to the players, their growth, and their development rather than on furthering or bettering his own career. Will good players and good seasons help both? Sure. But relationship building is playing the long game, and it seems that Heupel intends to do just that.
Will Josh Heupel Be a Mainstay on the Top 25 List?
Josh Heupel is recruiting well, coaching well, and is surrounded by a talented staff and talented players. He has turned around a program that had become known for letting down fans on a consistent basis. He has gained respect for himself and the University of Tennessee’s football program, and has maintained a commitment to greatness for himself and his players. College football is a wild ride, but Josh Heupel has earned his spot on this year’s Top 25 College Football Coaches list from The Athletic. Early prediction: we’ll be seeing Heupel’s name on this list for many seasons to come.
This offseason, it’s great to be a Tennessee Vol!
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