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ESPN: Joe Milton is the most important player in the College Football Playoff race

If he plays up to his potential, Tennessee will be in the hunt.

NCAA Football: Orange Bowl-Clemson at Tennessee Rich Storry-USA TODAY Sports

To say expectations are high for Joe Milton is probably an understatement. The fifth-year senior quarterback is set to embark on his third chance as a starter in big time college football, and he’s being handed the keys to the nation’s best offense.

Milton’s talent is obvious. The arm might be the best in all of football. However, the inconsistencies from his Michigan days and his short stint as Tennessee’s starter in 2021 aren’t easily forgotten. Sure, Joe lit up everyone in garbage time last year and turned in a really solid performance against a good Clemson defense in the Orange Bowl, but can he do that for a full season?

That’s the million dollar question — and it’s why Bill Connelly of ESPN named Milton his No. 1 most important player in the College Football Playoff race. Connelly isn’t calling Milton the best player in the country, he’s saying he has the widest range of outcomes — and his best outcome could push Tennessee right into that final four.

Here’s Connelly on Milton.

1. QB Joe Milton III, Tennessee

It couldn’t be anyone else. Milton gets a third chance to become a star after misfiring at Michigan in 2020 and Tennessee in 2021, and whether he succeeds or fails — whether Tennessee becomes a potential Georgia or Alabama spoiler or an outright SEC favorite — we’ll know why.

If he still takes too many sacks and toes the wrong side of the line between patience and slow decision-making, he’ll probably end the year on the bench behind five-star freshman Nico Iamaleava. But if he’s firing quickly to Ramel Keyton, Bru McCoy and Squirrel White and fully harnessing the explosiveness of both Josh Heupel’s offense and his own right arm — he’s almost certainly got the strongest arm in college football — then the sky’s the limit for Tennessee. Forget spoiler talk and put them in the national title conversation.

No pressure, Joe.

Drew Allar at Penn State, Carson Beck at Georgia and whoever wins the starting quarterback jobs at Ohio State and Alabama rounded out the top five most important players.

Milton steps into a proven offense that’s loaded with weapons. He seems collected and ready to take advantage of this final opportunity — and Tennessee’s 2023 season quite literally rides on his performance.

Connelly’s right. No pressure, Joe.

But it certainly feels like he’s ready this time.