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It’s time for Tennessee and Joe Milton to take separate paths

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Tennessee isn’t going to win a championship with Joe Milton III as its starting quarterback. Coach Josh Heupel isn’t going to magically turn Milton into a top-flight college quarterback. It’s time to move on.

While it should be up to Milton to skip the Citrus Bowl, Heupel should provide a push if Milton needs it. No, Milton wouldn’t be getting benched, suspended or dismissed, especially if his decision not to participate in the Vols’ postseason was his to make. However, a nudge is in order. Milton could be making a smart business move, which would benefit the Vols. 

Unless you’ve been stuck in a time capsule for the past 10 years, you should know that skipping a bowl game isn’t perceived as poorly as it used to be. At first, it was considered practically unsportsmanlike – if not downright dastardly. How could you give up on your team? Well, it’s pretty easy to move on, as opposed to playing in a glorified exhibition game, when the NFL is a reality – and it is for Milton.

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Milton is beloved by his teammates and it would be an incredibly bad look for Heupel to force Milton’s hand and ask him to skip the Citrus Bowl. That’s a horrible narrative for current and prospective Vols. However, Milton skipping the bowl game on his own accord is best for both parties and, essentially, there is nothing for either side to gain from moving forward together. While there’s always a chance Milton could shine against Iowa, he could also seriously hurt his draft stock if he struggles against the Hawkeyes, which is more likely than not.

Iowa has the fourth-best defense in the Big 10, allowing just 13 points per game. The Hawkeyes are also fourth in the Big 10 in rushing yards (102) and passing yards (172) allowed. Against a defense like that, Milton could play well and still look bad. Moreover, let’s face it. NFL scouts know what Milton is. There’s nothing he can do against Iowa that will change the perception of him, that he is a big, talented athlete with questionable passing skills. Therefore, Milton has nothing to gain, other than some kudos from his teammates, by playing in the Citrus Bowl. However, Milton will be well respected whether he plays in the Citrus Bowl or not. He’s already earned that.

Does anyone really believe Milton can help his draft stock with one great game against Iowa? Milton’s best way to improve his draft stock is to work on his combine drills and wow scouts with his physical ability. Preparing for the combine is not like preparing for a football game. Running a 40-yard dash is far different than running from defenders. Considering the Vols don’t have much to play for other than a Citrus Bowl Trophy, why shouldn’t Milton start getting ready sooner rather than latter?

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Milton is beloved by his teammates and considered a great leader. Has the respect of his teammates already, especially considering he has taken so much of the flack for some of the Vols’ missteps in 2023. Milton wasn’t the sole reason the Vols lost four games this season, but as the starting quarterback, he was an easy target.

Milton moving onto the NFL would also make the Citrus Bowl far more entertaining. I don’t need to tell you why. Imagine the hype that would be associated with the Citrus Bowl if freshman Nico Iamaleava were set to make his debut. Is that a lot to ask of a freshman, especially against a defense like Iowa’s? Certainly, but Iamaleava wasn’t a five-star prospect for his ability to play backup. There is, however, one potential downfall to this whole plan. What if Iamaleava struggles? That wouldn’t be a great sign to prospects considering the Vols. However, it would certainly give Tennessee’s coaches a better feel for Iamaleava in a real game. 

So far, Iamaleava has only played in mop-up duty during his Tennessee career. Is Iamaleava a “gamer” or a marvelous athlete in practice who struggles when the games really count? No one knows for sure. By all accounts, Iamaleava has lived up to the hype – as a second-string quarterback. However, we’ll never really know until Milton is gone.

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