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Tennessee’s offense centered around one very important Vol in South Carolina win

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Tennessee center Cooper Mays seems to make a difference. The senior’s return to active duty for the Vols against South Carolina led to an offense with less pre-snap confusion and more efficiency. More simply said, Tennessee’s offense was markedly better with Mays in the lineup. It was as obvious as Dark Mode.

It’s not as if Mays’ return after missing the Vols first four games meant a suddenly dominant running game emerged from the ashes. That would be too easy of a correlation to make. The Vols were already the top rushing offense in the SEC with 229 yards rushing per game and 6.2 yards per carry. Tennessee ran for 238 yards against the Gamecocks and averaged 6.0 yards per carry. However, Mays’ inclusion in the lineup for the first time since the Orange Bowl last season was a bit more subjective than a stat sheet alone might indicate. Tennessee’s running backs’ feet didn’t tell the tale nearly as much as quarterback Joe Milton’s pair of confident tootsies.

Even when he didn’t throw perfect passes, Milton seemed much more comfortable leading the Vols’ offense with arguably Tennessee’s best leader snapping him the ball. Milton’s interception in the first half was the result of an inexplicable bad read more than it was him being insecure in the pocket, which he never was with Mays in the game. 

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How many times did Mays get the Vols in the perfect protection against the Gamecocks with a last-second adjustment? Only Tennessee’s coaches know that for sure but Milton was only sacked once and South Carolina had only a handfull of quarterback pressures against the Vols.

Accuracy, which Milton has been fairly criticized for, begins with good footwork, which begins with confidence, which begins with a solid pocket to work from. Milton had that on Saturday. Subsequently, he completed 21 of 32 passes for 239 yards and two interceptions.

Some, including me, argued that Mays was the most valuable player on the Vols roster when they were in preseason camp. That was just before he was deemed ineligible with a hernia procedure. Sure, Milton may have a bigger impact on a game than Mays, but highly touted freshman Nico Iamaleava is on the roster ready to back Milton up if he were to go down. No offense to Ollie Lane, who filled in for Mays until the South Carolina game, but he’s not Iamaleava and he’s certainly not Mays. Lane is a hard worker, an overachiever and a valuable member of Tennessee’s football team. However, Mays was preseason All-SEC, not just a good hometown story.

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Milton’s calm with Mays up front makes the Vols a much different football team. It changes the way Tennessee coach Josh Heupel can call plays. Sure, the Vols are going to keep running the ball and utilizing screen plays as extended running plays, but Heupel is much more apt to throw the ball downfield now that defenses are walking up closer to the line of scrimmage before the snap. Why are defenses adjusting? Milton is more efficient on underneath passes because he’s more comfortable. That, with a highly effective running game, could bring back the Vols’ explosiveness that was their hallmark last season.

Tennessee’s football team can’t look back, even with a bye week looming. However, a more calm Milton could have beaten Florida, a game the Vols lost 29-16. A more calm Milton means better accuracy. That means Tennessee can, indeed, be a College Football Playoff contender. So how much did the Vols miss Mays? Just ask Milton. 

Need more proof? Ask former UT quarterback Hendon Hooker, who was in Neyland Stadium on Saturday. With Mays as his lead blocker, Hooker was a Heisman Trophy candidate. That kind of regard may be out of Milton’s reach, but with Mays back in the lineup, a championship is certainly back in the conversation.

While Georgia has been known for playing down to their competition, they still only beat Auburn by a touchdown, 27-20. If the Vols continue to improve offensively, it’s reasonable to think they could hang with the champs at Neyland Stadium.

On the flip side, Kentucky’s 33-14 win over Florida made the Gators, who beat the Vols two weeks ago, look much less impressive. Is the SEC East up for grabs? That probably depends on Georgia, which has mastered muddling to a win. However, Tennessee will have a say in the matter with Mays back in the lineup. As for the Vols, their offense appears to be done with its early season muddling.

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