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Tennessee Football: Vols Mistakes Keeping Them From Being Championship Worthy

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Tennessee has a major problem on offense. I bet you never thought you’d hear that so soon after the Vols’ offense set the college football world on fire last season.

It’s hard to ascertain the exact cause of the problem. However, it’s clear that Tennessee’s offense doesn’t scare offenses down the field as they used to in 2022. Why? That’s up for debate.

UT quarterback Joe Milton can certainly throw the ball deep, but his accuracy on deep passes – and in general – has long been a concern. That was the case in a 29-16 loss against Florida on Saturday. Aside from a 55-yard touchdown pass to receiver Bru McCoy, the Vols didn’t hit on any of the long, arching deep passes that were such a trademark last season. 

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Tennessee tried to complete a deep pass to Dont’e Thornton in the second half but that was under thrown and Thornton couldn’t make a reception on what would have been a great catch and might have been defensive pass interference. Looking for more plays to truly stretch the field? Keep looking.

It’s hard to blame Milton when he doesn’t have as many opportunities as former UT quarterback Hendon Hooker had last season. However, not having those chances to strike a devastating offensive blow says as much about Milton as it does about any incomplete pass he may have thrown. 

Accuracy isn’t the only issue. The more significant issue is that defenses and UT coach Josh Heupel don’t believe Milton can beat them consistently deep. That means defenses play soft coverage intent on not getting beat deep and Heupel doesn’t call deep passing plays nearly as often. The issue that arrives after that is that Milton and his receivers can’t consistently complete shorter passes to force defensive backs to roll up into tighter coverage.

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Milton was part of the Vols’ group of leaders that called a players-only meeting last week after Tennessee faced the same issues against a lessor foe: Austin Peay. The Vols beat the Governors 30-13, but Tennessee’s offense didn’t look anything like it did when it regularly hung 60 points on opponents last season.

Milton was largely cheered for taking the blame in the suboptimal performance against Austin Peay during the players-only meeting. However, the grand get-together didn’t seem to do much good. In fact, the meeting may have just been a sign that the Vols have some offensive woes that they were aware of before it became national news in the The Swamp on Saturday.

During Milton’s postgame press conference after the loss to Florida, he didn’t seem fazed.

“Just not us being focused, just shooting ourselves in the foot,” Milton said. “That’s all it is.”

Well, it’s good to know that Tennessee’s problems are so easily summed up. One would think such a precipitous fall from being the highest-scoring offense in the nation last season to the 57th best scoring offense in the nation this season would be bit more complicated than just lacking focus. Also, why did the Vols lack focus when playing an SEC East rival on the road? That’s hard to fathom.

Milton tried his best to put a happy face on an ugly loss, certainly under Heupel, who is in his third season at Tennessee’s head coach. Milton said the Vols could come together as a team or separate. Simply implying that one loss could divide a team is disconcerting.

It’s one thing to get beat by a better opponent. That’s part of building an elite program. However, the Vols continued to carry the theme that they beat themselves during Heupel’s press conference on Monday.

“You look at it offensively in particular, self-inflicted wounds,” Heupel said. “That can be penalties. That can be unforced errors, it can be communication. Our percentage is way too high. It was on Saturday and it really was the week before too (against Austin Peay). That’s why you move the ball at times, but you don’t have very many points. And we have to clean that up. You can’t beat yourself.”

Tennessee still has all of its goals in front of them – except for an undefeated season. However, if the Vols don’t stop beating themselves – as they’d have you believe – then any championship is out the window. One more loss and the Vols will need major help to make a College Football Playoff. One more SEC loss and the Vols will need major help to make the SEC Championship. It might be time for Tennessee to stop hurting themselves, especially in the passing game.

Still, there’s one more concern that is far more significant that the Vols beating themselves. With significant losses to the NFL, injury issues at hand and Milton at the helm, maybe the Vols just aren’t good enough to be championship worthy as they were last season.

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