Photo via Tennessee Athletics
Tennessee football capped off its best season in over two decades the right way Friday night in Miami. The Vols led start-to-finish as they outplayed No. 7 Clemson on their way to a, 31-14, Orange Bowl victory.
It was the last time the 2022 Tennessee football team took the field. A team that has given Vol nation more joy and positive memories than any other did it again. Tennessee created big plays on offense as they have all season and were disruptive on the defensive front as they’ve been when they’re at their best.
“The Vols are back on top,” quarterback Joe Milton said of the statement Tennessee made to end the 2022 season.
Beating Clemson to cap off the season? That’s even more special for Tennessee football fans. No program has benefitted from Tennessee’s demise more than Clemson, landing top recruits from the Volunteer State and winning national championships with them.
Even this season, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney took shots at Tennessee after they lost at South Carolina. Beating a team that’s capitalized on your shortcomings is sweet, but having wins over three of the last four national champions in one season is a selling point Heupel was already harping on during the postgame trophy ceremony.
“It continues to put our brand, the style of football and it’s a legacy moment for the guys that are here and graduating but it’s a springboard for us moving forward,” Heupel said.
The Orange Bowl victory was the perfect way for Tennessee to cap off the 2022 season but it was hard not to look ahead to 2023 and how the performance can be a springboard.
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Joe Milton III turned in his best performance as a Vol completing 68% of his passes for 251 yards and three touchdowns. He did it throwing the ball not to stars Jalin Hyatt and Cedric Tillman but Ramel Keyton, Bru McCoy and Squirrel White.
All three receivers will be back next season and the freshman White shined against Clemson, catching nine passes for 108 yards and a score.
“When I first got here I was rolling with twos and stuff and Joe was my quarterback and he was just hitting me stride,” White said on their previously built chemistry.
But the offense wasn’t perfect against Clemson. That’s the reality moving into next season. Tennessee’s offense could be great again but after ranking first nationally in points and yards this season there’s nowhere to go but down.
To sustain this season’s level of success, Tennessee’s defense is going to have to take a big step forward. That unit turned in one of its best outings of the season against Clemson.
The Vols defense wasn’t perfect, bending and giving up plenty of yards. However, they never broke. Tennessee twice intercepted Clemson freshman Cade Klubnik and turned the Tigers over on downs in a one score game in the second half.
There were departing players making plays— most notably Byron Young who had two sacks after deciding not to opt out of the Orange Bowl— but returning veterans Aaron Beasley and Doneiko Slaughter had big games.
“Just buying into the coaches. Listening to the coaches,” Beasley said of his obvious growth as a player.
Young defenders Tyre West, Josh Josephs and Elijah Herring also all flashed for Tennessee against Clemson and showed a clear path to the Vols improving on that side of the ball.
Milton was impressive but it was Tennessee’s defense that led to its Orange Bowl victory over Clemson.
“The best is yet to come,” Heupel said.
If the Vols’ defensive effort and Milton’s performance in the Orange Bowl is any indication, Heupel is absolutely correct.