Josh Heupel turned around Tennessee in year one. Jeff Lebby looks to do the same for Mississippi State football

Josh Heupel inherited a total rebuild in Knoxville in 2021, but immediately turned things around. Jeff Lebby's Mississippi State football program is in a similar spot in 2024. He'll look to do the same.
Mississippi State Spring Football Game
Mississippi State Spring Football Game / Justin Ford/GettyImages
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Tennessee's 2021 schedule wasn't easy

For as much as you can look to the improvement of team-performance on the field, strength of schedule still plays a major role in a team's outcome in a given season. It's a major reason why many have doubts about Mississippi State having a successful 2024.

But Tennessee wasn't handed a cakewalk in Josh Heupel's first year. The Volunteers played five teams that ended the 2021 season with double-digit wins, those being Georgia, Alabama, Ole Miss, Pittsburgh, and Kentucky. They also faced a Florida team that, at the time they played, was in much better shape than they were at the end of the year.

Of those six games, they lost five, with the one win coming against Kentucky. But they lost by just one score to Pitt and Ole Miss, and went into the fourth quarter still in the game with Alabama.

What did prove helpful for Tennessee was the easier games on the schedule. They entered the year as heavy favorites against five opponents: Bowling Green, Tennessee Tech, South Alabama, South Carolina, and Vanderbilt. Sure enough, they dominated those teams. They also blew out a Missouri team that had high expectations entering the season but failed to deliver upon them.

The lesser teams on their schedule provided a clear path for bowl eligibility in 2021, but still, half their schedule came against legitimately good teams. It wasn't like they had much margin for error. Their offense being so potent in year one that they easily defeated each bottom-half team they faced, were competent against upper-half teams with a win over one of them, and won seven regular season games with four SEC wins was quite impressive.