By Jimmy Hyams
Fair or not, the Orange Bowl will be a referendum on Tennessee quarterback Joe Milton.
If Milton plays well against No. 7 Clemson (11-2), he firmly plants himself as Tennessee’s starter entering this fall.
If he doesn’t, the competition will likely be open this spring among redshirt Tayvon Jackson and five-star signee Nico Iamaleava.
Milton looks the part of an NFL quarterback – 6-foot-5, 245 pounds, athletic, fast, cannon for an arm.
In fact, CBS’ Rick Neuheisel, a former quarterback himself, said one of the most entertaining things he saw last season was Milton throwing passes during pre-warmups. He’s that impressive.
But throwing passes against air doesn’t define a quarterback. If it did, JaMarcus Russell and Ryan Leaf would have been a stars in the NFL.
There are two questions Milton must answer against Clemson – and in the future. He must be accurate with his throws and he must make good decisions.
Those were two attributes that served Hendon Hooker well.
Milton showed flashes this season that he’s a better version of the 2021 Milton, who started the first two games of last season at Tennessee with mixed results.
Milton was more accurate and more decisive in a backup role to Hooker, the SEC Offensive Player of the Year. But Milton’s success came when the game wasn’t on the line, for the most part.
He started Tennessee’s 56-0 victory over Vanderbilt in the season finale, and he made a nice throw to Jalin Hyatt in the first quarter. But he missed some open receivers after that and finished a pedestrian 11 of 21 for 147 yards and one touchdown.
After Hooker was injured against South Carolina, Milton found an uncovered Hyatt streaking up the right sideline. But Milton misfired – though no one was near Hyatt.
You can’t miss those type throws if you want to be an elite quarterback – or even a good quarterback.
Had Milton been UT’s starter this past season, the Vols might not have beaten Pitt or Florida or Alabama. They might have gone 7-5 instead of 10-2.
But we don’t know that for sure.
Maybe Milton, given the reigns, would have responded with a solid season.
After basically sitting out the 2022 season, watching Hooker perform, and forging a better understanding of UT’s fast-pace offense, maybe Milton is ready for a breakout 2023.
It would certainly help his case – and engender confidence in the coaching staff and the UT Vol Nation – if Milton has a strong Orange Bowl against a solid Clemson defense.
It’s worth noting that during a preseason media avail, Milton was asked about getting beat out by Hooker last season. Milton corrected the reporter: “I didn’t lose the job; I got hurt.’’
That’s a good attitude for a quarterback who needs to exude confidence.
But he will gain more confidence – for himself and those around him – if he performs well under the Friday night lights in Miami.