While watching the SEC Championship Game, two things concerning Tennessee football immediately sprung to mind: quarterback and the physicality of the game.
Alabama quarterback Jalen Milroe won a championship by combining his stellar skill set, which includes a strong arm and the physical ability to make plays running the football. That sounds familiar to Tennessee fans. Before the season, Vols’ quarterback Joe Milton was lauded as a future star as he had already locked down Tennessee’s starting job. Meanwhile, no one was really sure what Bama had with Milroe at the helm. The season started and Alabama’s coaches weren’t sure Milroe was the answer. He was benched in September after starting the season. Things certainly changed over the course of the year – for Milroe, not Milton.
Alabama coach Nick Saban decided to let Milroe utilize his running ability on more designed quarterback runs. That obviously worked. Tennessee coach Josh Heupel seemed to try to get Milton more involved with the running game, but he never seemed quite comfortable doing so. When that didn’t work, Milton was asked to throw about every screen pass in the playbook to keep the Vols on the move. That had mixed results. Simply put, Milton either didn’t have the talent needed by an upper-level quarterback, such as touch and accuracy, or Heupel didn’t find a way to best utilize his skills. Heupel had a sports car without a steering wheel. The Crimson Tide didn’t have that issue. They found what Milroe did best and rode him all the way to an SEC Championship.
The other aspect of the SEC Championship Game that was apparently obvious is that the more physical team won. Alabama wasn’t afraid to run the ball inside against the Bulldogs’ revamped front and the Tide did so successfully. As far as physicality, Heupel’s teams haven’t consistently played like Bama. That might be the final step to win a championship.
Tennessee was 12th in the SEC in fourth-down conversions, which often comes down to running the ball inside to pick up a couple of yards that could extend a drive. The Vols couldn’t do that consistently last season. That needs to be a major goal. The Vols need a better plan in place on fourth downs. Lining up Milton in the shotgun isn’t going to cut it if the Vols want to eventually win a championship.