It’s time to reduce expectations for Tennessee Volunteers football.
Not Tennessee the program under Josh Heupel. Saturday’s Vol-exposing 29-16 loss at Florida doesn’t change what he’s trying to do or make it less likely that he does it. Building teams that can compete for SEC and national championships was never going to be easy, was never going to linear, and though it’s been mostly ups since Heupel took over, downs are assured.
Here was a big one — an evening of Heupel watching a struggling Florida offensive line handle his vaunted front, his offensive line struggle to avoid false starts let alone pass block, and his defensive backs take turns looking like they were playing tackle football for the first time.
“You can look at tackling and not being off the field on third down defensively,” Heupel told reporters after Florida went 7-for-14 on third downs. “Offensively, you can look at pre-snap penalties and lack of efficiency and all of it.”
Florida knocks off No. 11 Tennessee in The Swamp
It was a night of Tennessee fans watching their team commit 10 penalties, most of them inexcusable, and appear to be a poorly coached team. That’s not the case, the preponderance of evidence screams. But it looked that way Saturday. And of Tennessee’s past four SEC road trips, three of them have been humiliations, the other a Vanderbilt vacation.
Dwell on the officials if you like. A couple of bad calls hurt the Vols. The officials were not nearly as bad, or costly to the Vols, as were the Vols.
Tennessee the program is building effectively. Tennessee the 2023 football team might be in for some struggles. Quarterback is the obvious focus after sixth-year senior Joe Milton hit a couple of long balls but missed on too many others. Quarterback is definitely a source of sobering reality at this point. Tennessee probably isn’t going to compete for any championships with Milton or freshman Nico Iamaleava running the offense. It’s an in-between year.
The Vols are coming off two of the best quarterback seasons in program history, authored by Hendon Hooker, whose greatness is probably appreciated a bit more today by Vols fans and will grow in stature over time. They’re building up to Heupel’s fourth season, with what is shaping up to be the most talented UT roster since this was a legit national contender under Phillip Fulmer, with Iamaleava in a much better position to cut loose after a year in the program.
One quick caveat: If this program can’t start producing starting defensive backs who can make open-field tackles and turn their heads and find the ball downfield, it’s going to be good for a clunker or two every season.
Saturday Takeaways: Tennessee slips in Swamp; UGA, Bama survive
And an aside: Billy Napier’s Gators deserve tons of credit for this performance. They were physical, aggressive and creative on offense. Between this win and the recruiting momentum Napier has right now, Gators fans should be able to downshift from a general state of panic. UT still hasn’t won at Florida since 2003, and if this Tennessee team can’t beat this Florida team on the road, Tennessee fans should embrace an SEC future in which this is no longer an annual matchup.
Tennessee in 2023 has to figure out which quarterback gives it the best chance to win for the rest of the season. The secondary question is, does the freshman benefit more from being thrown into the fray now, or from sitting and watching? If Heupel believes he’s ready to handle all that comes with it and gives the Vols more upside, it’s time to consider a switch — this team can still have a nine-win regular season, and that would not halt program momentum.
But that’s also a heavy move, considering all that Milton has done — the work, the willingness to stay in Knoxville after Hooker beat him out — to earn this opportunity. He’s a team leader, if not the team leader. He’s experienced and has tremendous physical ability. And if you didn’t watch this game, haven’t watched him all season, and just saw his numbers — 20-for-34, 287 yards, two touchdowns and his first pick since 2020 at Michigan — you might wonder why this is even a question.
Heupel told you why at the end of the first half. Tennessee has essentially become a team that is comfortable throwing screens and the occasional deep pass. Milton threw the deep ball well Saturday, by the way, with shots of 41 to Squirrel White and 55 to Bru McCoy for a touchdown. He also threw some slants. But it does not appear there’s much trust in him to stand in the pocket, go through progressions and deliver intermediate passes.
Heupel didn’t even have confidence in him to throw passes at all, late in the first half with the Vols down 26-7. How else do you explain that bizarre sequence? It was more bizarre than the end, when Heupel took a petty timeout with seven seconds left, some of his players had to come back onto the field from the tunnel, and the extra time allowed the Vols and Gators to get into a little scrap before cooler heads prevailed.
Three Jaylen Wright runs got the ball from the 25 to the 50, which is great, but at some point, you have to play hurry-up football and try to pass your way to points. Wright was tackled with 1:33 left in the half. And, again, the Vols were down 19. It was time to go.
They called another run and Wright lost a yard. Then they stood around, inexplicably, finally calling a timeout with 35 seconds left. That’s 58 seconds lost, 58 crucial seconds for an offense that barely had the ball in the first half, lost for no good reason.
The drive died from there. And that may be operational in part, but from late in the first half of last week’s unsightly 30-13 win over Austin Peay, UT’s offense has essentially gone into turtle mode. Runs, screens, swing passes, the occasional deep shot.
But no real trust that Milton can operate the whole thing. This looks nothing like the Tennessee offense in 2022 with Hooker at the controls. That offense had a different coordinator, by the way, Alex Golesh, a guy who had his South Florida team tied with Alabama well into the third quarter Saturday. His replacement, Joey Halzle, has never been a coordinator. This is not an insignificant change and it should not be overlooked.
But this offense is still Heupel’s baby, and he let Hooker change, nurse, burp, walk and read to the baby at bedtime. He’s got Milton babysitting from a different room, watching the crib on a video screen. Heupel needs to let him attempt to fill the job description, allowing for some mistakes. That’s the right move. If the trust has eroded too much, let the next caretaker get an early start.
(Top photo of Joe Milton throwing a pass while under pressure from Florida’s Scooby Williams: Kim Klement Neitzel / USA Today)