No pressure, Joe Milton, but this is on you. No. 11 Tennessee visits Florida on Saturday carrying a next-big-thing reputation in the SEC. Last year’s 11-win season fueled the hype — and not just in Neyland Stadium.
Suddenly, the Volunteers have the coach (Josh Heupel), the momentum and the roster to make a major move in the SEC … perhaps even nationally. That is a glimpse of Tennessee’s potential.
Now, about Milton, do the Vols have the quarterback?
“We’ll get Knoxville back rocking again,” Milton promised before the season.
This is Milton’s moment against the Gators for a lot of reasons. The 6-foot-5, 235-pound Michigan transfer has ridden a physical and emotional roller coaster. Two years ago, he beat out Hendon Hooker to be Tennessee’s starter. Then in the season’s second game as starter, Milton suffered an ankle injury.
That opened the door for Hooker to become a legend as he led the Vols to a, their best season in more than 20 years. Meanwhile, Milton had almost been Wally Pipp’d. It wasn’t until an ACL injury ending Hooker’s season late in the campaign that Milton got back on the field as a starter.
Milton stepped up matching a career-high by throwing three touchdowns against Clemson in the Orange Bowl. That raised the stakes for Tennessee and Milton himself in 2023.
“One of the great things [was] Hendon not being there for the bowl game,” Heupel said. “That’s not a great thing, obviously. The positives that came out [were important].”
There was no doubt about Milton’s status this year. The dude is QB1. He can throw it to the moon. The only question: Can he hit the moon? OK, maybe that’s too harsh for a 59% career passer.
Still, it’s totally fitting to mention it is Florida week. There is no doubt Tennessee should be favored despite losing nine straight across two decades in The Swamp. The Vols opened as 7-point favorites.
If they are going to fulfill that next-big-thing label, Milton must take the next step. The game is Milton’s second road start at Tennessee. The first was last year at Vanderbilt.
This one means more — much more. The last time the Vols beat the Gators in Gainesville, Heupel was a graduate assistant at Oklahoma. Tennessee has not beaten Florida in back-to-back seasons since 2003-04.
At 1-1, the Gators already look wounded, perhaps on their way to a third consecutive losing season for the first time since 1945-47.
“Yesterday has nothing to do with today,” Heupel warned this week.
These are strange and thrilling days at Tennessee. Milton comes into the Florida game without an interception in his last 239 throws (going back to his Michigan days). That’s the second-longest streak in the country. The last time he threw a pick was against Wisconsin three years ago. Those Badgers were quarterbacked by Graham Mertz, now the Gators’ starter.
If there is going to be another turnaround — this one by the SEC — it starts with Tennessee. The league heads into Week 3 with a 3-6 record against Power Five teams in nonconference play. That’s the SEC’s worst such record through two weeks since 2003.
No. 10 Alabama is 1-1 for the first time since 2003. No. 14 LSU — at Mississippi State this week — got blown out by No. 3 Florida State. No. 22 Miami just hung the most points on Texas A&M in a regular-season game (48) since 2016. The ACC is 4-1 against the SEC. It’s not time to panic, but only once this century has a conference played at least five games against the SEC and finished with better than .720 winning percentage (Big East, .800, 2012).
Meanwhile, the Vols have done what has been expected albeit against subpar competition.
Coming off the most accurate season in Tennessee history (68.7% completion rate as a team), Milton hasn’t quite broken out yet in 2022. There were at least half a dozen dropped passes last week against Austin Peay. The most successful red zone team when it came to scoring touchdowns in 2022 went 0 for 3 against the Governors.
“It’s the ‘want to,'” Hooker said of Milton. “He has the want to. That’s one of the biggest things that a lot of people don’t have — to go the extra mile. We were on vacation, Fourth of July. We were down in Houston. We still got work in.”
That celebrated vacation included a stay at the home Trent Williams, the 49ers offensive lineman who played under Heupel at Oklahoma (quarterbacks coach 2006-10). It also included offensive tackle John Campbell, wide receiver Dont’e Thornton, defensive end Tyler Baron and defensive back Wesley Walker.
“Hendon played his role,” Milton said of the quarterback who helped elevate Tennessee football. “Things happen as a man. What are you going to do when that adversity hit? You’ve got to smile and live through it.”
The QBs remain friends and allies, but only one has proven himself. The next-big-thing now has the stage.