, Hendon Hooker lifted the Vols into the CFP conversation and himself into the Heisman Trophy race, leaving a lasting legacy in Knoxville.,

College Football

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Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker was enjoying a Heisman-caliber season until the moment his left knee buckled in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s loss to South Carolina, resulting in a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

As a 24-year-old senior, Hooker was generating first-round NFL Draft buzz because, with him behind center, the Vols offense was a record-breaking scoring machine, averaging more than 46 points and 540 yards of offense per game.

In age and productivity, perhaps the best comparison for what Hooker accomplished this season is what former Pittsburgh Panther quarterback Kenny Pickett accomplished in 2021. Pickett turned a Heisman-finalist season into a first-round selection in the 2022 draft (No. 20 overall, Steelers). At age 24, he was the only quarterback chosen that high.

Related: Tennessee QB Hendon Hooker out for season

Like Pickett — and like Tua Tagovailoa in 2020 (No. 5 overall, Dolphins) — it’s possible Hooker could still be drafted highly after his season-ending injury. But he’ll likely be hurt by missing the opportunity to play in the Senior Bowl and work out for NFL teams that would like to see his ability in environments controlled by pro coaches.

That’s what his talent has meant to the sport. But Hooker’s legacy at Tennessee means even more.

In his second season at Tennessee, he threw for 3,135 yards and 27 TDs with just two INTs. He did so despite sitting out second halves and fourth quarters because the offense had put up numbers that, at lower levels, would’ve led to calls for a running clock.

Against Missouri, Hooker led an offense that produced more than 700 yards and 66 points.

Tennessee has scored 34 or more in every game this season except one, a 27-13 loss to the defending national champion Georgia Bulldogs. The Vols have beaten five AP-ranked opponents along the way.

But no win is more meaningful to the Vols and their faithful than the 52-49 thriller they won against Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide. That victory broke a 16-year losing streak to the Tide and vaulted them into their first No. 1-ranking in the College Football Playoff era. It also vaulted Hooker to the front of the Heisman race.

There’s still a chance that Hooker will receive enough Heisman votes to warrant his attendance at the ceremony in New York. But the Vols’ dream season appears to be destined to end without a CFP invitation, thanks to their 63-38 loss to South Carolina at Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday night.

While Hooker passed for 247 yards with three TDs, the Vols trailed the Gamecocks by 18 when Hooker injured his knee. And that will be nearly impossible for the CFP selection committee to overlook.

There is a path, though, however slim, thanks in part to the Vols’ 40-13 victory over SEC West champ LSU in Baton Rouge earlier this season.

If LSU — now ranked No. 6 in the AP poll — loses to a bad Texas A&M team, and if USC loses to Notre Dame, and if South Carolina pulls a second consecutive upset and topples Clemson, and if TCU loses to Iowa State or in the Big 12 Championship, and if the Big Ten East champ — Ohio State or Michigan — loses the Big Ten Championship, the Vols might find themselves in the midst of an “eye test” argument for a final spot in the CFP. Again — if is the operative word here.

It behooves UT backup quarterback Joe Milton to play his best football in Hooker’s stead against a Vanderbilt team that has knocked off back-to-back SEC opponents. The Vols need to leave a lasting impression in their final regular-season game.

That Tennessee is still in a position to challenge for a CFP spot — ifs and all — is a testament to what the Vols have accomplished this season, and none of that could’ve been done without Hooker.

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RJ Young is a national college football writer and analyst for FOX Sports and the host of the podcast “The Number One College Football Show.” Follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Young and subscribe to “The RJ Young Show” on YouTube.

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