Tennessee's dominant Orange Bowl performance punctuates a breakthrough season, raises stakes for 2023
MIAMI — You can say that bowl games don’t matter anymore. That they’ve lost their luster. That their usefulness has gone extinct. But don’t tell the Tennessee Vols. And for that matter, don’t try to convince the Clemson Tigers. For both teams, in this top-10 battle, the players who suited up certainly proved that they didn’t travel to South Florida simply for a sunny vacation.
Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel spoke for everybody after No. 6 Tennessee punctuated its best season in decades by dominating No. 7 Clemson 31-14 in the Orange Bowl.
“Bowl games matter,” Heupel told Saturday Down South. “You watch (the players) every single day, the effort, the strain, the excitement, the disappointment on the other side. It matters.”
Heupel told Saturday Down South about the rare opportunities to play in a bowl as prestigious as the Orange Bowl. He should know. As the starting quarterback for Oklahoma, Heupel led the Sooners to the 2001 national championship with a 13-2 Orange Bowl victory over Florida State.
“I don’t talk about my playing days a lot with these guys,” Heupel said. “I’m old enough that some of them weren’t even alive, but I think they bought into that these moments matter. It’s something that they’ll remember for the rest of their lives.”
That doesn’t mean that every team plays with a full roster during bowl season.
“That’s just the nature of where we’re at during the course of bowl season,” Heupel said. “But it matters for everybody that shows up. It matters for the head coaches, the assistants. It matters to the fans. It matters to the players.
“These guys are prideful. Clemson’s prideful. When you line up to compete, you’re going to compete with everything that you’ve got.”
Tennessee’s Orange Bowl victory holds great significance. For one, it gave the Vols their first 11-win season in 2 decades.
“It continues to put our brand (out there), the style of football (that we play),” Heupel said. “It’s a lazy moment for the guys that are here that are graduating, but it’s a springboard for us moving forward.
“Our brand is out in front of everybody. We’ve beaten 3 out of the last 4 national champions (Clemson, LSU, Alabama) during the course of this season. It’s an 11-win season, which hasn’t been done since 2001.”
Yes, the Vols’ Orange Bowl victory was huge.
“There are so many positive things, so much momentum inside of our program,” Heupel said. “The entire country, our players, our fanbase, recruits, can see the trajectory of where Tennessee is and where it’s going. Tonight’s a big night.”
And don’t tell the near capacity Orange Bowl crowd at Hard Rock Stadium, home of the NFL Miami Dolphins, that this game had no meaning. They were into it from the beginning, with very audible chants of “Bruuuuu” as Tennessee QB Joe Milton III completed early passes to WR Bru McCoy, the Vols’ 2nd-leading receiver this season. They connected on a 16-yard touchdown pass that put Tennessee in front early, 7-0. And the Vols never looked back.
And when he wasn’t delighting the crowd with throws to McCoy, Milton was connecting with Squirrel White, who caught 5 passes in the first half alone, good for 76 yards, including a 50-yard bomb that set up the Vols’ 2nd TD of the half for a 14-0 cushion.
The two combined for a much-needed 14-yard TD play in the final seconds of the third quarter when the Vols’ offense was sputtering coming out of halftime. It enabled Tennessee to enter the final period with a comfortable 21-6 lead.
The pivotal scoring play was preceded by a 42-yard dash from Jalen Wright that ignited what had been a dormant Tennessee offense through 14-plus minutes of the third quarter.
Milton struck again midway through the final period with his 3rd TD pass of the game, a 46-yarder to Ramel Keyton for an insurmountable 28-14 lead.
Milton moved the Vols through the air with relative ease through 2 quarters, completing 13-of-18 passes for 155 yards despite the absence of leading receiver Jalin Hyatt (67 catches, 1,267 yards, 15 TDs) and Cedric Tillman (37-417-3), both of whom opted-out of the game.
For the game, Milton threw for 251 yards (19-for-28) and 3 TDs.
No, neither team was simply going through the motions, playing out the string if you will. In a hotly-contested, hard-fought, hard-hitting, and highly entertaining Orange Bowl game on the night before the College Football Playoff semifinals, it was the Vols who came away with a much-deserved and very meaningful victory.
That the nation’s top offense put 2 scores on the board in the first half wasn’t too surprising. What was a bit curious was the Vols’ defense holding Clemson out of the end zone through the first 2 quarters. The Tigers had been held without a TD in the first half only once before, this season, when Notre Dame did it back on Nov. 5.
Though the Tigers more than doubled Tennessee’s first-half output, 177-84 in total yardage, the Vols’ 14-3 halftime lead was helped along by Clemson’s 3 missed field goals from long distance. In addition, the Tigers, with no timeouts remaining, ran out of time at the end of the first half on the Vols’ 11-yard line and were not able to lineup for a possible field goal attempt.
It was a satisfying finish to a breakthrough season for Tennessee (11-2) which returned to the Orange Bowl for the first time in 25 years. The last time the Vols were in the Orange Bowl was Peyton Manning’s final game, following the 1997 season, a disappointing 42-17 loss to No. 2 Nebraska.
But these are happier days for Tennessee. With the 11-win season, Heupel etches his name in Vols history with the 4 other head coaches to accomplish 11-plus wins in a season. He now stands with the likes of Phillip Fulmer (who attended the game), Johnny Majors, Bill Battle and Bob Neyland.
Milestones like that certainly matter.