KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Opinion at the beginning of the Josh Heupel era with the Tennessee Volunteers was mixed and expectations for year one weren’t high; now that the bulk of the season has taken its course, the tune has changed and the Heupel era looks promising.

After a tough, disappointing 2020 season, in 2021, the Vols have shown flashes of being a great football team in every game this year, and are nearly eligible to play in a bowl game. Heupel and the Vols have taken care of business in each game it was expected to win and even upset No. 18 Kentucky on the road.

In matchups where the Vols weren’t favored to win, they showed up and battled in each game. Losing by single digits to Pittsburgh and Ole Miss (both currently ranked in the top 25 and have Heisman candidate quarterbacks), led No. 1 Georgia after the first quarter and hanging toe-to-toe with top four-ranked Alabama for three quarters.

The players and the team as a whole have faith in Heupel as a coach and a person. Running back Jabari Small said, “He’s instilled a lot of confidence into us. You can tell by the way we play. The effort we play with. The way we compete. He’s just a coach that you would love to play for. It’s just putting away all the outside noise and just playing football.”

Defensive lineman Omari Thomas added, “He’s just been an energy giver to us. He’s just always high energy every day, positive, always telling us we’re in a race against ourselves to be the best, and he’s just always been there for us as a coach. He’s just always pushing us to be better every day.”

Highly-touted defensive line coach Rodney Gardner said that Heupel does a solid job communicating the program’s short and long term goals. He added that he’s also excited to see where Heupel takes this program moving forward.

Currently, Tennessee is 5-5 with a 3-4 conference record which lands them in the third spot in the SEC East behind No. 1 Georgia and Kentucky. They will face South Alabama (5-5) and Vanderbilt (2-8) to finish out the regular season. With one win, they’ll be eligible for a bowl and will get a chance to show out against a tough opponent with a similar record.