Since the Tennessee football program pushed forward in the right direction this season, it was pointed in several directions on Sunday.
The Vols finished sixth in the college football playoff rankings and are bound for the Orange Bowl to play Atlantic Coast Conference champion Clemson on Dec. 30 at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla. A New Year’s Six bowl bid, Tennessee’s first in the playoff era, is an impressive accomplishment for a program that was in disarray just two years ago. UT has been restored in short order by coach Josh Heupel and his staff.
UT had reason to set their sights even higher. Finishing one spot behind Alabama, for example, is bound to be a source of consternation and second-guessing considering both teams finished 10-2 and the Vols beat the Crimson Tide in October. The real sense of disappointment, though, was reflected by the four-team national championship field. No. 3 TCU and No. 4 Ohio State each had one loss. The Vols’ stunning 63-38 faceplant at South Carolina on Nov. 19 prevented them from being a one-loss team with a resume worthy of top-four consideration.
Presumably, offensive coordinator Alex Golesh will be part of the Orange Bowl traveling party. But first, the UT assistant will be diverting to Tampa, Fla. South Florida has announced Golesh as its new head coach. The offense that has helped restore Tennessee to its current stature also made Golesh a compelling candidate for his first head coaching position after seven stops as an assistant.
“Alex has worked his way up through the college ranks, been a key part of successful program-building at numerous stops and has developed perhaps the most fearsome offensive attack in college football today,” South Florida vice-president of athletics Michael Kelly said in a university release.
Golesh, who is a finalist for the Broyles Award, was hired as Heupel’s co-offensive coordinator and tight ends coach at Central Florida in 2020. That season, UCF was among the nation’s leaders in total offense and scoring.
He came with Heupel to Tennessee last season and the offense immediately soared into the top 10 nationally. This season, UT led the FBS in scoring (47.3 points per game) and total yards (538.1 per game) this season. The Vols scored at least 34 points in all but one game. They scored 40 or more eight times and topped 50 in six games.
Quarterback Hendon Hooker threw for 3,135 yards and 27 touchdowns before suffering a season-ending knee injury in the South Carolina loss. He was one of only four players to record at least 3,100 yards and 400 rushing yards this season.
Hooker is a finalist for the Walter Camp, Maxwell and Manning awards and will be traveling this month as well. Will he be going to New York later this week for the Heisman Trophy announcement? The four finalists will be announced on Monday. The winner will be honored on Saturday.
* * *
Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri, who has covered University of Tennessee athletics since 1988. He is a 2022 inductee to the Tennessee Sportswriters Hall of Fame. He can be reached at email@example.com.