Quarterback Joe Milton III rushing the ball in for a touchdown. Photo by Tennessee Athletics.
According to ESPN’s Bill Connelly, Josh Heupel’s Tennessee Volunteers possess the most important player in the 2023-2024 college football playoff race.
But let’s back up a minute, first.
Southern California quarterback Caleb Williams returns to the college football scene after winning the Heisman Trophy last season. So, shouldn’t Williams be the most important player on the road to the playoffs? Connelly’s list deals more with the unknowns compared to the most-established player returning to the sport this season.
“My annual Most Important Players list is about those unknowns,” Connelly wrote for ESPN on Thursday. “Here are 25 players who could define the season with either moments or long spells of greatness. Some play for contenders, while others play for the teams that might prevent contenders from reaching their goals. All of them will have a chance to make their mark on 2023.”
Tennessee quarterback Joe Milton III tops the list. The sixth-year veteran quarterback is set to take over for departed quarterback Hendon Hooker and assume the driver’s seat to Tennessee’s No. 1-ranked offense from the prior season.
“It couldn’t be anyone else,” Connelly wrote.
Milton, along with the No. 2 pick on the list (Penn State QB Drew Allar), falls under the category of: New starting QBs for potential contenders with a potential game-changing leap and shots at lots of contenders”.
“Milton gets a third chance to become a star after misfiring at Michigan in 2020 and Tennessee in 2021, and whether he succeeds or fails — whether Tennessee becomes a potential Georgia or Alabama spoiler or an outright SEC favorite — we’ll know why.”
More from RTI: Tennessee Starting Center Underwent ‘Minor Procedure’ Wednesday
Connelly continued on to explain the ceiling and the floor for Milton’s final year of college football with the Volunteers.
“If he still takes too many sacks and toes the wrong side of the line between patience and slow decision-making, he’ll probably end the year on the bench behind five-star freshman Nico Iamaleava,” Connelly wrote. “But if he’s firing quickly to Ramel Keyton, Bru McCoy and Squirrel White and fully harnessing the explosiveness of both Josh Heupel’s offense and his own right arm — he’s almost certainly got the strongest arm in college football — then the sky’s the limit for Tennessee. Forget spoiler talk and put them in the national title conversation.”
Milton led Tennessee to two straight victories to close the 2022 season following Hooker’s ACL injury in late November. The second-year Tennessee quarterback led the Vols to a rainy win over Vanderbilt in Nashville and a win over Clemson in the Orange Bowl.
While Milton’s final two performances did give optimism for the Vols’ early 2023 outlook, neither performance was a record-breaker. Milton still continued to work at his craft throughout the offseason and has received a significant amount of praise from the coaching staff and his teammates regarding the new, confident, Joe Milton.
“He’s a completely different guy, not just player,” Tennessee OC Joey Halzle said about Milton at the start of fall camp. “His attention to detail is elite. He came back after that Clemson game and was hungry to keep learning and keep pushing forward. He didn’t rest on his lulls and say he had figured it out. He pushed and saw the success that he had, and he knew what he could do.”
Milton’s spot at the top of ESPN’s “25 most important players in 2023’s College Football Playoff race” not only beats out all the other 24 players but also everyone from the SEC. All in all, Milton ranks above nine other SEC players that were selected for the Top 25 list.
Georgia quarterback Carson Beck lands at No. 3 while Alabama’s entire quarterback room (without a named starter) is at the No. 5 slot. LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels at No. 8, Texas A&M quarterback at No. 18, South Carolina quarterback Spencer Rattler at No. 19, and Arkansas quarterback K.J. Jefferson at No. 20 round out the SEC quarterbacks on the list.
Also added to the list from the conference are Alabama WR Ja’Corey Brooks (No. 17), Georgia TE Brock Bowers (No. 21), and Alabama OLB Dallas Turner (No. 23).
To see and read through Bill Connelly’s full list for ESPN, click here.