As first impressions go, Josh Heupel probably couldn’t ask for a better opener among FBS foes. Bowling Green went 0-5 in the MAC last season, losing by an average margin of 45-11. Only UMass was worse in SP+ last season, and the Falcons are 125th in 2021 preseason SP+ projections.
Of course, it’s not just that the last time we saw both Bowling Green and UMass, they almost beat us. There was plenty of, “Finally, a cupcake opener!” for Georgia State just two years ago. You never know.
But there’s at least a chance Josh Heupel’s Vols put up something ridiculous in week one. That would lead us straight into the overreaction trap for the first real temperature check of his tenure just nine days later. Pitt’s a story for another day. For now, if the Vols do throw out a big number on Bowling Green to open the Josh Heupel era, it would certainly look and feel different than what we’ve seen recently.
In the post-Fulmer era, the Vols have scored 40+ points in regulation vs an FBS opponent 22 times in 12 years. Ten of those belong to Josh Dobbs; seven more to Tyler Bray. Jonathan Crompton did it twice in the back half of 2009.
Two of the other three involved weirdness: Western Kentucky’s “let’s turn it over on every play!” strategy in 2013, which helped Butch Jones get off to a nice start in his second game. And South Carolina two years ago, when the Vols scored 41 points by way of two special teams touchdowns. That leaves Vanderbilt last year as the final example, when the Vols did get a pick six from Bryce Thompson (and also, it was 2020 Vanderbilt).
Between Dobbs and that special teams flourish against South Carolina two years ago, Tennessee rode the struggle bus hard. In regulation, the Vols never even scored 30 points against FBS competition in 2017. They did it only once in 2018, again aided by a defensive score, in the signature win at Auburn (30). And in 2019, they scored 30+ against Georgia State (30), South Carolina (41), and UAB (30).
So, bump it up to 31+ points, and 2019 South Carolina is the only time the Vols hit that mark vs an FBS foe in regulation for three straight years.
This is one reason that early start felt so good last year: 31 points at South Carolina, 35 against Mizzou. Obviously neither of those teams were world-beaters, but Tennessee’s offense got the job done against middle-tier SEC East teams in a way it did not in the previous three seasons. And then, of course, it did not for the rest of the non-Vanderbilt schedule last fall.
This is perhaps the silverest of linings for Josh Heupel’s brand of football this year: Tennessee has been so bad on offense the last four years, it won’t take much to make us feel good. And nothing feels better in football than points.
So man, 40+, even on Bowling Green, would feel really good compared to what we’ve seen recently. Hit 50+, and that’s only been done vs FBS in regulation 10 times post-Fulmer (half of those are Dobbs).
And 60+? That’s been done once, and done in part because Josh Heupel was on the other sideline: in 2016, Tennessee beat Missouri 63-37 in a game featuring 1,349 total yards, and the Tigers running 110 total plays.
I don’t know exactly what will happen against Bowling Green, who the quarterback will be, or if he can find a way to add his name to the list with Crompton, Bray, and Dobbs over the last 13 years.
But I think there’s a chance we could have some fun right away.
Here’s the full list:
Tennessee 40+ Points (vs FBS in regulation) Post-Fulmer
- 2020 Vanderbilt: 42
- 2019 South Carolina: 41
- 2016 Virginia Tech: 45
- 2016 Kentucky: 49
- 2016 Missouri: 63
- 2015 Bowling Green: 59
- 2015 Kentucky: 52
- 2015 Vanderbilt: 53
- 2015 Northwestern: 45
- 2014 South Carolina: 45 (42 in regulation)
- 2014 Kentucky: 50
- 2014 Iowa: 45
- 2013 Western Kentucky: 52
- 2012 Akron: 47
- 2012 Georgia: 44
- 2012 Troy: 55
- 2011 Cincinnati: 45
- 2011 Buffalo: 41
- 2010 Memphis: 50
- 2010 Ole Miss: 52
- 2009 Georgia: 45
- 2009 Memphis: 56