Nick Carner from Tennessee’s SB Nation site Rocky Top Talk stops by to talk about the game from a Vols perspective.
Matt Goldin: If you had asked most Vol fans before the season how they would feel about a 10-win season, win over Bama, and an appearance in the Orange Bowl, I’m sure they would be thrilled. However, given how this season has gone, I’m sure some are disappointed to not be in the playoffs. What’s the overall temperature of the fan base going into the game?
Nick Carner: The South Carolina game took quite a bit of the wind out of this season’s sail, for sure. But it wasn’t just the blown CFP chances — it was just as much, if not more, about Hendon Hooker’s injury. It’s been some time since the Vols have had even competency at QB, much less the magic he injected into the program over the last two seasons.
But still, I don’t see how you can see this year as anything but a success, regardless of the outcome of the bowl game. Beating two rivals that held multiple-game win streaks, the program’s first-ever College Football Playoff No. 1 ranking and being in the race for the SEC Championship until the UGA game... those are big deals for a program that went 3-7 in the 2020.
Matt: What opt outs are big for Tennessee? And on the other side, what young guys are you excited to see get a shot?
Nick: Wide receiver and Biletnikoff Award winner Jalin Hyatt tops the list as the most impactful opt out. I think that one is self explanatory. Fellow wide out Cedric Tillman isn’t playing either, and while he had a great season last year — he wasn’t healthy most of this year. So, while it would be great to have him, the team’s gotten used to him not being out there, ya know?
Defensively, the only opt out so far is linebacker Jeremy Banks. Banks was one of the country’s leading tacklers in 2021 with 120-plus, but his production was notably down this season. Tennessee doesn’t have a whole lot of quality depth at any position, so a starter not playing ain’t great regardless.
As far as the younger guys go: I expect to see freshman WR Squirrel White start, since he’s been Hyatt’s backup at the slot position most of the year. He’s got speed to take the top off the defense and averaged nearly 18 yards per-catch this year. At linebacker, the only younger fella we might see more of is Elijah Herring. He was the only first-year LB to play more than 100 snaps, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see some defensive packages featuring him.
Matt: What are the vibes going into the offseason? Is next year playoff or bust? Do the expectations hinge on how the Bowl game goes?
Nick: A lot of how the fans are gonna feel this postseason depends on how QB Joe Milton performs in the Orange Bowl. Josh Heupel brought with him something this program needed: an identity. Quarterback is typically the most important position on any team, but Milton’s shown flashes of tantalizing talent that can really flourish in Heupel’s offensive system. Unfortunately, we’ve mostly seen that talent on display this year when he was in second-half, mop-up duty.
I would happily take a good game from Milton in a loss over a win with a poor display from Joe. Tennessee has 5-star freshman Nico Iamaleava already enrolled, which is great, but the only other scholarship QB on the roster is class-of ‘22 freshman Tayven Jackson, who broke his collarbone in the Vols’ seventh game of this season. So there’s a lot riding on Milton’s performance and what it means for next year.
Matt: Clemson and Knoxville are roughly 3.5 hours apart. There’s overlap in where the fans live and the two teams compete for recruits regularly. Yet, we haven’t played since 2003. I don’t know that Clemson fans generally *like* Tennessee, but it’s kind of a “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” and we often cheer for y’all against UGA, Alabama, and South Carolina. What do Vol fans think of Clemson?
Nick: I’d say you’re pretty right on the money with your description. As far as I know, Vol fans don’t have any real specific distaste for Clemson. There’s just no real reason for any real animosity.
Matt: What’s your prediction for the game?
Nick: I think Clemson is just the more talented team. If Milton can come out and execute the offense without ending three-and-out drives with overthrows, then Tennessee’s offense can keep the team in games with anybody, but without Hendon Hooker and Jalin Hyatt, I just don’t see it. I don’t bet on sports, but if I did, I’d take Clemson to cover.