Saturday Football: Vols hire Josh Heupel, Justin Fields' draft stock slips and SEC schedule release
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Good morning and happy Thursday! Things are starting to settle down at Tennessee, but the coaching carousel continues to spin elsewhere. Meanwhile, schedules are starting to come out and we’re going to get some spring football starting soon (thanks, Coastal Carolina)!
In today’s newsletter, we’ll discuss the Vols’ decision to hire Josh Heupel away from UCF. Then, we’ll take a look at Justin Fields’ NFL Draft stock, which seems to be falling for some strange reason. Finally, we’ll dive into the SEC’s 2021 schedule release. Let’s get started!
TENNESSEE HIRES A NEW COACH
Tennessee has a new head football coach. Can Josh Heupel find success on Rocky Top?
The Tennessee Volunteers recently hired former UCF AD Danny White to replace Phillip Fulmer as the school’s new athletic director. After a search for a new football coach, he called for a familiar face. That’s right, the UCF-to-Tennessee pipeline continues, as UCF coach Josh Heupel was named the new head coach of the Vols on Wednesday morning. Heupel’s contract is reportedly worth $4 million per year for 6 years, which is quite the pay bump for a guy who was making significantly less at UCF.
That is obviously a decision that will define the beginning of White’s tenure as AD on Rocky Top, and it has been met with some mixed reactions. Let’s take a look at what people are saying about the move to hire Heupel away from the Knights:
- Heupel is known for being a great offensive mind. His offenses during his time as Mizzou’s offensive coordinator (2016-17) and UCF’s head coach (2018-20) have been elite. However, as Saturday Football newsletter editor Adam Spencer pointed out on Twitter, Heupel’s offenses consistently rank last in their conferences in time of possession. That puts a lot of pressure on the defense. That will lead to much scrutiny over who Heupel hires on the defensive side of his staff. He was asked specifically if interim coach/DC Kevin Steele would be retained. Here’s what he said.
- It seems White is thrilled to have his former UCF cohort aboard. He said during Heupel’s introductory press conference that he tried not to hire Heupel, but later said Heupel was his No. 1 choice. Kind of a mixed message. Media reaction to the hire was mostly negative, with the word “underwhelming” popping up quite a bit. Sports Illustrated’s Pat Forde says Tennessee was “destined” for a hire like Heupel, and he doesn’t mean that in a good way. Vol Twitter, a notoriously tough bunch to please, was also pretty negative about Heupel’s hiring.
- Here’s where we point out it wasn’t all negativity, though! Current Tennessee players (yes, there are still a few who haven’t transferred) were overwhelmingly supportive of the hire. Saturday Down South’s Mark Nagi writes that it feels like Tennessee’s trajectory is about to change (for the better). Fellow SDS writer Connor O’Gara says he was dead-wrong about the Tennessee search and thinks Heupel could be just right for the Vols.
We’ll end this section with poor Marcus Tatum. Tatum was a Tennessee offensive lineman who entered the transfer portal after the 2019 season. He went to UCF, where he played in every game for Heupel’s Knights in 2020, making four starts. Now, of course, Heupel is heading to Tennessee, causing Tatum to send this great tweet in response. Maybe he’ll find his way back to Rocky Top?
- The 2021 schedules are already starting to be released. The SEC released its full 2021 schedule on Wednesday. One nonconference game that stands out? The Week 1 matchup between Georgia and Clemson. Saturday Down South’s Connor O’Gara says we can already start calling that matchup the most-hyped game of the entire 2021 campaign.
- There are still a few intriguing 2021 recruits left unsigned. As we approach February’s National Signing Day, some teams will be looking to add some more top-rated recruits on Feb. 3. Bleacher Report’s David Kenyon predicts which teams will be winners and which will be losers on the traditional National Signing Day.
- The Senior Bowl is taking place in Mobile, Alabama, this week. Some of the nation’s top 2021 NFL Draft prospects are looking to make good impressions on the NFL coaches and executives in attendance. Yahoo’s Eric Edholm, along with The Athletic’s Dane Brugler and Fran Duffy of PhiladelphiaEagles.com, put together a 7-round mock draft of the top Senior Bowl draft prospects.
- ESPN recently put together its way-too-early 2021 top 25 rankings. So, how can those top teams live up to their potential this fall? ESPN’s college football staff broke down one way each of the early top 25 teams can make a College Football Playoff or New Year’s 6 bowl run.
JUSTIN FIELDS’ DRAFT STOCK
Justin Fields is slipping in several NFL mock drafts despite a great year. What’s the deal with the Ohio State QB?
Trevor Lawrence or Justin Fields? Those were the two quarterback candidates who were expected to battle for the No. 1 overall selection in the 2021 NFL Draft this past college football season. For some reason, that’s no longer the case. Lawrence appears to be the consensus No. 1 pick and Fields is continually slipping in the mock drafts.
Fields had a solid season at Ohio State, throwing for 2,100 yards and 22 touchdowns while completing passes at a 70.2% clip. He also rushed for 383 yards and 5 more touchdowns while leading the Buckeyes to a 7-1 record and a berth in the national championship. Why are the analysts so low on Fields? Here’s what they’re saying:
- Mel Kiper Jr. has Fields as the No. 3 QB off the board. Fields is currently tabbed as the No. 7 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft by the ESPN analyst. Not only is he behind Lawrence in Kiper’s mock draft, but the Ohio State quarterback is behind BYU’s Zach Wilson. Kiper justified his assessment of Fields by saying he had “off games” against Indiana and Northwestern, and Wilson didn’t have one of those games. We can all probably agree, though, that the competition Fields was facing was far better than anyone Wilson played all year.
- There isn’t any love from Todd McShay, either. Not only does McShay believe Lawrence and Wilson will get drafted as the top two quarterbacks, but he believes the BYU quarterback is “significantly better” than Fields. Saying any quarterback is “significantly better” than Fields seems like a stretch given that he was 20-2 as a starter and was named the B1G Offensive Player of the Year in back-to-back seasons. But, over the last month or so, McShay has been consistent and even dropped Fields outside his Top 10 for the 2021 NFL Draft.
- Other analysts weighed in on Fields’ draft status, too. NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah agrees with Kiper and McShay, listing Fields as the No. 12 pick in the draft. That seems ridiculously low for a player thought to be a potential No. 1 overall pick less than a year ago. Sporting News has a little more faith that Fields will be the second QB off the board, projecting him to go No. 4 overall.
At times, Fields didn’t look like the No. 1 overall quarterback. Listing Lawrence as the top prospect available is probably a fair assessment at this point. But both Kiper and McShay have said that a return to Ohio State would benefit Fields greatly. It’ll be interesting to see what happens with Fields’ stock over the next couple of months, and if the draft analysts are right or wrong about his draft status.
JUST FOR FUN
Ryan Day might be one of the best coaches in the FBS today, but with only two years of coaching under his belt, his (impressive) 23-2 overall record doesn’t rank in the top 5 when it comes to current Big Ten coaches’ all-time wins. So, for today’s quiz, can you name the five Big Ten coaches with the most career FBS victories?
Scroll down for the answers to today’s quiz.
SEC SCHEDULE RELEASE
The SEC has released its full 2021 football schedule. What are the big takeaways from Wednesday’s release?
It seems like the 2020 college football season just ended (probably because Alabama just won the national title earlier this month), but the hype is already building for the 2021 season. In fact, the SEC contributed to some of that 2021 enthusiasm on Wednesday, releasing its full 2021 schedule. Here’s the team-by-team breakdown of the schedule.
So, what should we take away from this schedule release? There’s been plenty of chatter around the SEC’s upcoming 2021 campaign. Here are a few of the top headlines:
- Naturally, much of the focus was on the four new SEC coaches. South Carolina’s Shane Beamer, Auburn’s Bryan Harsin, Tennessee’s Josh Heupel and Vanderbilt’s Clark Lea all face big-time challenges. Here’s a look at each of those coaches’ nonconference and non-division opponents. However, SEC Network’s Greg McElroy picked a different squad when asked which team had the toughest four-game stretch in the league. It is indeed a brutal stretch.
- In 2020, the SEC played a 10-game, conference-only season. Now, the league is going back to an 8-game conference slate. The 10-game schedule was due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so it was always in danger of being a one-year experiment. However, commissioner Greg Sankey said after the schedule release that the SEC would continue to be flexible when it comes to planning for the 2021 season.
Now, we’ll play the waiting game to see when other conferences start to release their 2021 schedules. Either way, there are some big nonconference games on the schedule for several SEC squads. It’s just nice to see some big-time nonconference matchups to get excited about again.
Here are the five Big Ten coaches with the most career FBS victories:
- Kirk Ferentz, Iowa — 168 wins
- Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern — 106 wins
- Bret Bielema, Illinois — 97 wins
- James Franklin, Penn State — 84 wins
- Jim Harbaugh, Michigan — 78 wins
QUOTE OF THE DAY
“To be honest with you, I was gonna go to Florida. I was going to go but Manny (Diaz) did such a great job, just in the hiring process of showing me who he really was. Talking to me about the staff, about the plans and expectations and all things. And at the end of the day, I want to win. I want to go to a place who’s gonna have a chance to win and win immediately. And that can use my help as far as developing the secondary the way that it needs to be developed.”
– Former South Carolina DC Travaris Robinson was going to take the DB coach job at Florida, but instead took the same position on Miami’s staff. His comments about the two programs will certainly intensify the already heated rivalry.
TWEET OF THE DAY
Former Florida TE Ben Troupe couldn’t help but troll Georgia when asked about Tom Brady’s longevity in the NFL. Georgia hasn’t won a national championship since 1980, and the Bulldogs’ biggest rivals won’t let them forget it.