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Tennessee Football: Opt-outs could tell the tale in the Orange Bowl when the Vols play Clemson

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Motivation used to be the most significant off-field, determining factor in bowl games. No longer. Opt-outs have pushed good old motivation to the back burner for a couple of reasons.

First, players opting out of a bowl game are a good way of determining a team’s motivation. No one is opting out of the College Football Playoff. There’s plenty of motivation there.

Second, opting out actually affects play on the field. Tennessee quarterback Joe Milton III would attest to as much after two of his most talented receivers opted out of the Orange Bowl on Friday.

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So who has the advantage between Tennessee and Clemson in terms of opt-outs? The Vols have seemingly won that battle, but it’s a mixed bag.

That might seem surprising at first glance. Tennessee will be without receivers Jalin Hyatt and Cedric Tillman, who both decided to forgo their final game and enter the NFL Draft. At times, both players have been predicted to be first-round selections in April’s draft. Surely, that would be a big hit for the Vols, right? Not necessarily.

Tillman was barely healthy at all this season so the Vols have managed to do just fine without him. The Vols relied on Hyatt in the slot position to pressure opposing safeties and make reads easy on former Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker, who will be replaced by Milton on Friday.

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Kudos to Hyatt for having a fantastic season, but some of that was due to Tennessee’s system. The Vols had similar success with receiver Velus Jones last season. In fact, Tillman will probably go higher in the NFL Draft because of his overall ability. Hyatt is just plain fast – and that’s a compliment. Slot receiver Squirrel White could be poised for a big game on Friday.

Along with White, the Vols first line of receivers are fine without Hyatt and Tillman. Bru McCoy and Ramel Keyton have been more than serviceable. Either could shine in the Orange Bowl and it would hardly be a surprise.

The Vols will have to play without Jeremy Banks, the, um, misunderstood linebacker who will forgo his final bit of eligibility. Banks is a loss because he understands Tennessee’s blitz schemes and there’s not much depth behind him. After the South Carolina game, you may not like him, but the Vols would be better with Banks on the field.

The Vols will be better with Byron Young and Darnell Wright on the field against thte Tigers. The defensive end/linebacker and right tackle, respectively, will play one more game before chasing NFL riches. Both are key, award-winning types of players that should be commended for playing in what could be viewed as a meaningless game.

So the Vols lose a handful of mid-round picks to opt-outs. That’s not ideal, but Clemson is certainly worse off. Simply start with defensive end Myles Murphy and linebacker Trenton Simpson. Both are predicted to be selected in the first half of the first round of the 2023 NFL Draft.

Clemson had other transfers, but most left on a mutual parting with the Tigers’ administration.

How does all this add up to how motivated each team is? That depends on how you look at it. Wright and Young playing their last game in orange speaks volumes about their commitment to Tennessee’s football team. Tillman’s decision to move on with an injury is understandable. I’m sure UT head coach Josh Heupel would have like to have Hyatt back for at least one more game. As for Banks, losing him hurts, but it might have been a good time to part ways with the troubled defender.

Clemson has two players with first-round projections that are done with college football. Still, the Tigers probably have the better roster top to bottom. Maybe Tennessee is motivated to overcome that. At least some of the Vols are.

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