It was of little consolation to Tennessee that the Vols played in one of the most entertaining bowl games of the season. They wanted to win.
But even with the setback, the first season under Josh Heupel can be judged as nothing but a success.
Tennessee (7-6) won four more games than last season, set numerous offensive records and gave anguished fans hope for the future.
And the Vols were inches away from capping the season with a bowl win.
A controversial call overshadowed a wild ending to Purdue’s 48-45 overtime victory over Tennessee in front of a Music City Bowl record-crowd of 69,489 at Nissan Stadium in Nashville.
Running back Jaylen Wright appeared to reach across the goal line for a touchdown on a fourth-and-goal play on UT’s opening possession of overtime, but officials ruled his forward progress had been stopped before he scored.
The play could not be reviewed, and the Vols turned the ball over on downs. Purdue kicked a field goal to end a game that saw both teams combine for 29 points in the final 4:58 of regulation.
Although the call was not the only reason UT lost, it left a bitter taste.
“I see it as something we can build off of. Right now, remembering this loss,” UT quarterback Hendon Hooker says. “To change that narrative is big.”
To even reach a bowl game was something not many could have imagined last year when Heupel was hired. Numerous players had transferred away and potential NCAA sanctions stemming from the Jeremy Pruitt era hung over the program like a black cloud.
But Heupel worked hard to change the culture, earn the team’s trust and make football fun again around Rocky Top.
The stark differences from previous seasons were obvious to everyone involved in the program.
“Honestly, one word that stuck out to me was ‘growth,’” UT senior Theo Jackson says. “Coming off of last year, we were all falling apart. As soon as Coach Heup and his staff got here, it just started. That was way higher than what we had it. Just growth.
“The young guys, I’ve seen a change in them, just like doing what the older guys, myself and Hendon and Ced (Tillman) are doing.”
UT is still in the honeymoon phase of Heupel’s hire.
But Heupel’s amiable personality, fast-paced offensive system and the program’s lack of drama have engendered good feelings.
Unlike previous seasons, social media was filled with positive messages from fans and former players regarding the team’s trajectory in the aftermath of the bowl loss. They spoke about how enjoyable this team was to watch and how hard they competed.
Tennessee set a new single-season record for points scored in 2021, surpassing the previous record of 484 in 1993. With the 45 points against Purdue, the Vols finished with 511 points scored.
UT also set a new single-season record for touchdowns, surpassing the previous record of 63 set in 2016. With six touchdowns in the bowl, UT finished the season with 67 total.
Hooker set single-season program records for passer efficiency rating (182.01) and completion percentage (68.2).
The Vols finished the season with a school-record 102 tackles for loss under first-year defensive coordinator Tim Banks.
“I am very impressed with what Josh and that staff accomplished this season,” ESPN and SEC Network analyst Cole Cubelic says. “They had chances to close out with a win, but still surpassed all expectations. Considering the players who left that roster and the technical difference that came with the new systems installed, it was tough not be impressed with what we saw from the Vols this fall.”
Given the compressed nature of his arrival last year, Heupel feels much more prepared to build off the foundation the Vols have laid during the last few months.
“It will be completely different because you’re able to put a plan together for your second semester before the second semester starts,” Heupel explains. “In that way, it will be good for myself, our staff and our players.”
Although the Vols will lose some players, they will be bringing back several high-level starters, including Hooker and Tillman.
Hooker hadn’t even removed his jersey following the bowl loss, yet was already itching to return to the field to begin preparing for the 2022 season.
“As soon as we get back, first day of workouts, I know me and Ced are planning to stay up, get some of those young guys out there to stay up, do some pitch and catch, get some extra film as well,” Hooker said after the game.
Heupel knows the Vols still have more mountains to climb to build the program into title contenders in the SEC. The staff will put the finishing touches on the 2022 recruiting class this month, and then continue developing for the future.
Previous UT coaches have seen how quickly the goodwill can sour if the wins don’t follow.
The Vols have much bigger aspirations than just seven-win seasons and Music City Bowl appearances.
But what Heupel encountered in the locker room after UT’s loss to Purdue let him know the right pieces are in place.
“You could see it when they walked off the field. It hurt, right? Shoot, if it ever doesn’t, then you got the wrong group of guys inside the building,” Heupel said.
“They’re prideful. They care. I think that’s shown up in the way they competed tonight. But it’s shown in the growth over the last 11 months.”