It’s still wild to me, and quite a pleasure, to be typing “Orange Bowl Preview” into that box up there. The incredible ride of this football season makes its final approach tomorrow night, already secure in our hearts, ready to bridge the gap into next year. For an encore, the 2022 Vols can earn the sixth 11-win season since 1970, and join this impressive list:
Multiple Top 10 Wins in a Season (since 1972)
- 2006: #9 California, #10 Georgia
- 1999: #10 Georgia, #10 Alabama
- 1998: #2 Florida, #7 Georgia, #10 Arkansas, #2 Florida State
- 1989: #6 UCLA, #4 Auburn, #10 Arkansas
- 1985: #1 Auburn, #2 Miami
Thin the list to Top 7 wins, which the Vols would have a pair of if they beat Clemson, and you’re down to the last three on that list, and this season. This, again, is the generational company this team is keeping.
How can it happen? Three big questions for tomorrow night:
What’s the intersection of Tennessee’s offense without Hooker and Hyatt with how much better Tennessee’s defense can play to make up the difference? The Vols come to Miami leading the nation in points per game, yards per play, and are the only non-service-academy to average 10+ yards per pass attempt. If there’s a drop-off – hard to do anything else when you’re number one – how much of that could be replaced by an improvement from Tennessee’s defense?
Can Cade Klubnik join Anthony Richardson, Bryce Young, Stetson Bennett, and Spencer Rattler as quarterbacks to average 8.8+ yards per attempt against the Vol defense? After those four, no one else hit more than 6.7 against UT this season. Richardson, Bennett, and Rattler all went for 10+.
Klubnik hit 11.6 yards per attempt against North Carolina; D.J. Uiagalelei peaked at 9.0 against Wake Forest, 8.8 against Florida State. His lows came in the two losses, by far: 4.9 with Notre Dame keeping everything in front of them, and a disastrous 3.4 while completing just 28% of his passes against South Carolina.
One of the biggest places we may see this intersection: Tennessee’s explosiveness. The Vols are first in the nation in 30+ yard plays with 50, 4.2 per game. Hilariously, North Texas and Western Kentucky are tied for second with 47, both having played 14 games. The Vols still found explosiveness with Joe Milton at quarterback through the ground game at Vanderbilt. Can Tennessee still take the top off against Clemson’s defense?
Can Tennessee use Clemson’s own success against them? Coaches who have won at an extremely high level are often slowest to change, because why would you? So as college football has become more aggressive overall in going for it on fourth down, Clemson…has not.
On fourth down, the Tigers have gone for it just nine times. They are one of just four teams in the single digits there nationally, and the only one who has played 13 games. Clemson punts 4.8 times per game. The Vols, by comparison, punt just 2.6 times per game, sixth fewest in the nation.
Tennessee’s success sometimes comes down to how many stops they get. The Tigers, at least on paper, appear much more willing to give you the ball back.
Will what stops Tennessee best – sacks and penalties – show up again? We first looked at this when the Vols were set to take on Georgia: Tennessee punted just six times in wins over Florida, LSU, Alabama, and Kentucky. Five of those came with UT leading by two-plus possessions. But four of them happened because of sacks or offensive pass interference penalties. Then in Athens, Tennessee punted four times, three because of sacks or penalties.
Against Missouri, the Vols punted out of halftime after a sack. But their other punt came when leading by 25 points. At South Carolina, with every possession clearly valuable, the Vols punted down 14-7 after a holding call, punted on the opening drive of the third quarter, then punted on another offensive pass interference call.
So with Hendon Hooker as the starter, Tennessee punted 15 times in seven SEC games. Of those 15 punts, 10 happened because of a sack or penalty. Two others came with the Vols leading by 14+ points.
With Joe Milton at Vanderbilt, the Vols punted four times, and never due to a sack or penalty. But two of those came after UT was ahead 42+ points. Again: it’ll look different, and it previously looked like the best offense in America. But I’ll be curious to see how the pass protection, in particular, changes with Milton involved. That remains Tennessee’s greatest area of improvement from 2021, and could be a deciding factor in the game that’ll bridge 2022 and 2023.
It’s an incredible opportunity at the end of an incredible season. One more for this group’s story, and our first look at what’s to come.
Friday, 8:00 PM ET, ESPN.