By Ron Wynn
NASHVILLE, TN — A trio of new coaches are taking over at Tennessee State University, Vanderbilt and the University of Tennessee. In all three cases, the teams are coming off disappointing (in Vanderbilt’s case disastrous) years that resulted in their former head coaches being terminated. It would be overly optimistic (at best) to expect big results from any of these programs in their first season, but it’s certain that all three are going to get intense scrutiny and coverage.
Tennessee State has already been profiled everywhere from ESPN to the Sporting News, HBCU Digest to Bleacher Report and beyond. That’s because their new head coach is former Titans’ star Eddie George, coaching for the first time. But just by the nature of who he is and what he’s done, he has instantly raised the Tigers’ profile and drawn lots of national attention for the program. The addition of former NFL head coach Hue Jackson as offensive coordinator adds to the intrigue. A big example is TSU opening its season against Grambling Saturday in Canton, Ohio.
The Tigers will be playing in the Black College Football Hall of Fame Classic on Sunday. Then six days later they head to Memphis where they’ll face off against Jackson State in the Southern Heritage Classic, with another NFL legend Deion Sanders on the Jackson State sideline. It’s been a long time since the Tigers’ two opening games have been on the national radar but that’s certain to be the case now.
When you don’t win an Southeastern Conference game, there’s no way things could get worse. So new Vanderbilt head coach Clark Lea, a former player, comes in with a slate where if he can win two or three conference games represents an improvement. Lea has talked about instilling a competitive toughness and having a team that doesn’t give up even if it gets behind early. One thing in his favor is a normal Vanderbilt schedule with ostensibly winnable nonconference games on it, starting with the opener Saturday against East Tennessee State in Nashville. A second is no Alabama or LSU on the conference slate. If COVID-19 doesn’t rear its head and the Commodores are able to get some early wins, the chances of a winning season greatly increase.
Tennessee also has a new coach in Josh Heupel, someone with a past history of generating explosive offensive performance. After the dreary and inconsistent play that Tennessee fans have seen the last two years, they will gravitate towards Heupel’s team even if they’re losing a lot of 40-30 games. No one knows how soon or long it will take for things to turn around there, but at least you’re hearing optimistic things coming out of Knoxville. They open ahead of everyone else, with a game Thursday against Bowling Green.