1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …

There’s no magic moment, no chance convergence of time and situation.

You win games in college football with offense. You win championships with an elite quarterback.

Despite what Georgia did last season with one of the greatest defenses in the past 3 decades, there’s no denying the critical importance of scoring points.

A lot of points.

“We want to force defenses to react to us,” Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said.

Get ready for more pressure from the Tennessee offense, everyone. Enough pressure to potentially become the next SEC East team trading blows with Alabama in the 1st week of December.

The concept that was laughable merely 2 seasons ago can no longer be denied: Tennessee is a threat again in the SEC because the Vols will have 1 of the 2 best offenses in the conference.

The Vols have the best quarterback not named Bryce Young, and they have an already dangerous offense poised to boom in Year 2 under Heupel. And as we’ve seen of late in college football, those who score points in bunches are those who win games that matter.

LSU overwhelmed Alabama in 2019 with an offense so devastating, it simply had to outscore Alabama — among other big games, including Florida, Texas and Ole Miss — to win the SEC and the national title.

Florida in 2020 had an offense that was statistically as good as or better than any in school history. It was 3 blown defensive stands — 1 fumbled interception, 2 drive-extending personal foul calls on 3rd-down stops — from beating the Tide in the SEC Championship Game by simply scoring more points.

Georgia last season was the outlier. The norm this season, and moving forward, looks more like the LSU and Florida teams.

That’s where Tennessee, circa 2022, enters the picture — and why 1 move last season ignited a quicker transition in Heupel’s quest to turn Tennessee from Crawl Ball to Blur Ball in 1 season.

The move: inserting QB Hendon Hooker into the starting lineup in mid-September.

By the end of the season — by the time Tennessee was trading blows in a 90-plus-point game with Purdue in the Music City Bowl — the transformation was complete.

All that’s left for this season is refinement, and the addition of 1 or 2 dynamic options in the passing game to make the Vols a legitimate threat to win any game they play. Think about that.

The program that 2 years ago couldn’t string together 1st downs under former coach Jeremy Pruitt was systematically picking apart one of the best defenses in the Big Ten.

Purdue gave up an average of 22 points in Big Ten games last season, and 352.2 yards. Those numbers — and an average of 192 passing yards given up — were at the high end of not just the Big Ten but all of college football.

Tennessee, after a regular season of quick growth and after 15 critical bowl practices, rolled out an offense that scored 45 points and had 666 yards (378 passing) in a 48-45 loss. Only a tired defense kept the Vols from winning their 8th game, and improving by 5 wins from 2020 with essentially the same team.

The same team minus the 1 player who changed everything — at the 1 position that can become the difference between scraping by for bowl eligibility and winning games of significance in November.

Welcome back to games that matter, Vols.

2. The QB move

The trail of destruction left in the wake of Pruitt’s firing included a random transfer portal signing that barely moved the needle: former Virginia Tech QB Hooker.

Hooker was replaced by Braxton Burmeister in the last 2 weeks of the Hokies’ 2020 season, and he needed a fresh start away from a program that had grown stale (coach Justin Fuente would be fired a year later).

Tennessee hadn’t moved forward with QB Jarrett Guarantano, and Pruitt was desperate to find a quarterback who could save his job. Jim Chaney, then Tennessee’s offensive coordinator, began recruiting Hooker as soon as he entered the transfer portal.

Three weeks later, Hooker signed. A week after that, Pruitt was fired. Ten days later, Heupel was hired, and not long after that, Hooker liked Heupel’s pitch and stayed in Knoxville.

A year later, he’s a sleeper Heisman Trophy candidate going into the 2022 season.

“He’s a great leader,” Heupel said of Hooker. “He’s still becoming the best version of himself as a player.”

Translation: Hooker, despite his breakout season in 2021, hasn’t come close to reaching his ceiling. That should excite all things Big Orange — and scare the hell out of everyone else in the SEC.

A season after accounting for 36 TDs (31 passing) and having the 2nd-best passer rating in the SEC (behind Young), Hooker could be better in 2022. Much better.

For much of last season, he was learning the intricacies and nuances of the offense while trying to win games and get Tennessee bowl eligible — and become a leader the locker room desperately needed. Then the 15 bowl practices happened, and the refinement of Hooker began.

He completed 26 of 41 passes against Purdue for 378 yards, 5 TDs and 0 INTs, and he ran 19 times for 59 yards. He made critical 3rd-down throws and made drive-extending 3rd-down runs.

He was everything Heupel wanted from his quarterback when he arrived at Tennessee. Now Hooker has a chance to be even better.

“He has an opportunity to change some things fundamentally, and continue to grow,” Heupel said. “Last year, we were so worried about getting scheme in that we didn’t get a chance to touch on some of the global view things. We’ll be able to do that with him now.”

3. Overwhelming offense, The Epilogue

From the day Isaiah Neyor entered the transfer portal, Heupel and his staff zeroed in on the Wyoming receiver few knew and got a commitment for the 2022 season.

Then Texas showed up, and Neyor eventually signed with the Longhorns. How critical was that loss?

One SEC coach told me after watching Neyor’s tape that he has the ability to have a “Jameson Williams-type impact” for Texas.

“Pretty happy he’s not in Knoxville,” he joked.

The loss of Neyor is a big loss to Hooker, who needs another receiver to stretch the field and take pressure off blossoming star WR Cedric Tillman. While the Vols like the potential of WR Jalin Hyatt and see potential in athletic TE Princeton Fant, they need another weapon on the outside.

It could be 4-star signee Kaleb Webb, but more than likely it will be a transfer portal signing over the next 8 weeks (former USC WR Bru McCoy?). Whoever it is (and there almost certainly will be at least one WR portal pickup), he’ll arrive in an offense that returns 8 starters and improved by 18.4 points per game in 2021, and by more than 100 yards per game total offense.

He’ll be part of an offense that in 1 season under Heupel went from running 660 plays in 2020 to 953, from 127 plays of 10-plus yards to 211, and from converting 30 percent of 3rd downs to 44.6.

The transformation was remarkable, and it’s only going to get better this season. The 1st 9 offseason months last year under Heupel was learning names and finding fits and building a winning culture.

The 2nd offseason of 9 months under Heupel will be refinement and restructuring: from learning how to win, to finding ways to win big games.

Snapping 5-game losing streaks to Florida and Georgia and beating Alabama — and maybe having to do it twice — for the 1st time since 2006.

Two years ago, these were pipe dreams. Now, because of Heupel’s offense, anything is possible.

4. The portal race

We’re 8 weeks from the transfer portal window closing and primed for a wild, final push to improve SEC rosters for the 2022 season.

The first of numerous potential important additions: QB Jayden Daniels of Arizona State.

Daniels, like every Division I football player, has until May 1 to transfer to another school and still be eligible for the 2022 season. Any transfer after May 1 is ineligible for the 2022 season — unless the player receives a waiver from the NCAA.

Daniels announced last week he was leaving ASU, where he starred as a freshman but didn’t make significant improvement over the COVID season of 2020 (4 games) and last year.

He has visited Missouri, and he could also visit other SEC schools (including LSU).

“He has talent and he can fling it,” a Pac-12 coach told me. “Throws a beautiful deep ball, but accuracy is kind of hit and miss on intermediate stuff. The thing that makes him so dangerous is he has that twitch ability. He’s going to hurt you if you’re playing man and he pulls it down.”

One SEC coach I spoke to compared Daniels to Hooker, saying he had a similar arm talent and built a similar resume at Arizona State. Daniels had a TD-INT ratio of 42-13 and completed 61 percent of his passes at ASU; Hooker was 22-7 and completed 63 percent of his passes at VT.

Missouri’s quarterback room includes Brady Cook, who played well in last year’s Armed Forces Bowl, and redshirt freshman Tyler Macon. Sam Horn, a 4-star signee, is projected as a high pick in the MLB Draft and could opt to play baseball.

LSU, another potential option for Daniels, has 6th-year senior Myles Brennan, redshirt freshman Garrett Nussmeier and 4-star freshman signee Walker Howard in its quarterback room.

5. The Weekly 5

The top 5 nonconference games of September.

1. Georgia vs. Oregon

2. Utah at Florida

3. Alabama at Texas

4. Miami at Texas A&M

5. Cincinnati at Arkansas

6. Your tape is your resume

An NFL scout breaks down a draft-eligible SEC player. This week: Florida RB Dameon Pierce.

“Here’s the thing with Pierce — he showed out so well at the Senior Bowl, he has eliminated all hesitation about his part-time role (at Florida). He’s not the fastest guy, but he’s solid, strong, a big back with twitch. He doesn’t have the tape that Najee Harris had from his college career, and he’s not at that 1st-round level, but I can’t stop thinking of Harris when I watch (Pierce) play. He has those Harris jump cuts, and the strength to shed tackles. He’s dangerous in the pass game, too. He’s going to be a player in this league.”

7. Powered Up

This week’s Power Poll, and 1 big thing: underrated 2022 NFL Draft prospect, with best possible draft scenario, according to an NFL scout.

1. Alabama: TE Cameron Latu (5th-6th round).

2. Georgia: LB Quay Walker (3rd round).

3. Texas A&M: S Leon O’Neal Jr. (4th round).

4. Kentucky: DT Marquan McCall (6th round).

5. Arkansas: IOL Ty Clary (6-7th round).

6. LSU: IOL Ed Ingram (3rd-4th round).

7. Florida: DE Jeremiah Moon (5th-6th round).

8. Ole Miss: WR Dontario Drummond (6th-7th round).

9. Mississippi State: CB Martin Emerson (2nd-3rd round).

10. Tennessee: IOL Cade Mays (3rd-4th round)

11. South Carolina: RB Kevin Harris (6th-7th round).

12. Auburn: S Smoke Monday (5-6th round).

13. Missouri: C Michael Maietti (6th-7th round).

14. Vanderbilt: RB Re’Mahn Davis (7th round).

8. Ask and you shall receive

Matt: I feel like Lane Kiffin set the bar for Mike Leach last year. Is it too much for Leach to overcome? Will he always be compared to Ole Miss from last season, and will he ever reach that high bar? James Foster, Memphis.


How about this season? Leach’s best teams typically come with a multiyear starting quarterback and experience on the offensive line and at wide receiver.

Welcome to Mississippi State, 2022. QB Will Rogers will begin his 3rd season as starter this fall, following up on a sophomore year when he threw for 4,739 yards and had a TD-INT ratio of 36-9.

To reach the Ole Miss level of 2021 (a New Year’s 6 Bowl), the Bulldogs will have to win 6 SEC games. Assuming the Alabama game is a loss, the rest of the conference schedule — while daunting — is workable because of Mississippi State’s ability to score points (see: Tennessee).

The Bulldogs have home games against Texas A&M, Arkansas, Auburn and Georgia. LSU is at Baton Rouge, but in Week 3, when the Tigers and new coach Brian Kelly could still be figuring it out.

It’s certainly a lot to ask of a team that won 7 games in 2021 and got humiliated in a bowl loss to an average Texas Tech team. But this is the same Mississippi State team that lost its 3 non-Alabama conference games (LSU, Arkansas, Ole Miss) by a combined 16 points. And the same team that won at Texas A&M and Auburn.

9. Numbers

9.1. So much turnover, so much offseason noise. Meanwhile, we’re overlooking a key addition to Auburn: QB Zach Calzada.

At first glance (from Team Negative Auburn fan), Calzada was the QB Texas A&M didn’t want. But instead of wallowing in that pool of negativity, understand this: Calzada is the same quarterback who beat Alabama and averaged 9.1 yards per attempt in the process. (Bo Nix’s career-high average yards per attempt was 7.1, and he had seasons of 6.8 and 6.7.)

Despite Calzada’s 6.6 average yards per attempt last season, he is a vertical thrower. The ball goes downfield with elite arm strength. Refinement is the next step.

Bryan Harsin, whose career as an assistant and head coach has revolved around coaching quarterbacks, will be more involved with the position in 2022. He has no other option.

If he’s going to succeed on The Plains, he has to get his hands dirty in the QB room. He has a projected starter with elite arm talent, a player who beat both Alabama and Auburn in 2021.

This is where we will truly see what type of coach Harsin can become in the SEC, and if he can keep his job.

10. Quote to note

Kentucky coach Mark Stoops, on the hire of OC/QBs coach Rich Scangarello: “Rich is inarguably one of the best quarterback coaches in the country. Rich is experienced, he’s coached elite quarterbacks, he’s called plays in the NFL and college, and the fact that he is interested in this job just shows the growth of our program.”