Just like that, the most successful season on Rocky Top comes to a close as the No. 6 Vols took down No. 7 Clemson 31-14 at Hard Rock Stadium on Friday.
With the win, Tennessee secured its first 11-win season since 2001, but head coach Josh Heupel has no plans for this to be the height of his tenure at UT.
“There's so many positive things,” Heupel said. So much momentum inside of our program that the entire country, our players, our fan base recruits can see the trajectory of where Tennessee is and where it's going. And tonight's a big night.”
Here are some takeaways from the Vols first Orange Bowl win since 1936.
Joe Milton is named MVP
With so many questions of whether or not Joe Milton can come out and perform, he certainly showed out. Everyone knows he has arm talent, but could he control it? Milton not only displayed improvement, but proved he’s capable of being a valuable starter moving forward with his poise in key moments.
“You got to stay calm, you know that play is gonna happen and when it happens, it's gonna happen,” Milton said. So when you come to the sideline, just pretty much got to stay equal headed. Next play is gonna happen. You have to move on to the next play. And last but you can't go back and change it after you're done.
It should be noted that it wasn’t perfect and he showed some flaws, but he displayed that he can be next year’s starter despite a depleted roster. He finished with 251 yards and three touchdowns.
When it seemed as if Clemson was gaining traction on the night Milton put together a masterful 75-yard drive where he converted a third-and-eight to Ramel Keyton with a 21-14 lead. On the following play, the pair connected for a 46-yard touchdown and effectively put the game on ice.
To cap off the night, Milton was named the game’s MVP and will likely be the favorite for next year's starting job.
The Vols made the most of their opportunities past the 50
The Vols punted eight times and only made it past the 50 yard-line 6 times. The good news is that each time they made it there, the drive ended in a touchdown or field goal except for one in the fourth quarter.
On the other hand, Clemson struggled mightily to score in their own territory. The Tigers’ first four trips ended with a failed fake field goal and three missed field goals, setting the tone for the night.
It wasn’t the best offensive performance out of this offense, but the Vols played winning football and made winning plays all night.
Squirrel White: future star
Squirrel White is looking like the next great Vol receiver. In Jalin Hyatt’s absence, he was the next man up — and he played like it too. He has chemistry with Milton and was his go-to target all night.
The word on the street was that the offense couldn’t produce without Hyatt, but White silenced those doubts early and often.
On 9 catches, White had 108 yards and a touchdown. Milton found him early for some short gains before the pair connected for a 50 yard bomb to the goal line, adding a score later.
White has track-like speed and was able to consistently get separation all night. He wil be an important piece in the future of Tennessee football.
“Where we started and where we are now in that way is so different and we got good young players,” Heupel said. “We're losing some really good veteran guys obviously, but the future's freaky bright for Tennessee football.”