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ESPN: Tennessee can make the College Football Playoff... if these things happen

There are a few variables.

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel Brianna Paciorka/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

What has to happen for Tennessee to make the College Football Playoff? That was one question on Bill Connelly’s mind as he previewed the 2023 college football season. The Volunteers ascended all the way up to No. 1 last year in the initial batch of rankings that were released before losses to Georgia and South Carolina ultimately took them out of the running.

Now without Hendon Hooker and Jalin Hyatt, can Tennessee back up that 2022 performance? According to Connelly, then can — if these three things happen.

Is Milton ready?

Connelly began with the obvious wildcard of Joe Milton.

If ... Joe Milton is ready. From my SEC East preview: “Milton’s arm has seduced both Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh and Tennessee’s Josh Heupel. It’s one of the best arms you’ll ever see at the collegiate level. Effortless 60-yard flicks, that kind of stuff. But when it comes to football decision-making, Milton has shown limitations. He hasn’t been able to make the transition from ‘great thrower’ to ‘great quarterback.’ In 2023, Milton will get something college players usually don’t: a third chance.”

Milton has flashed improvement but it remains to be seen if that polish can be shown over a full season. ‘Bazooka Joe’ was fantastic in mop-up duty and against Clemson in the Orange Bowl, but those memories of all the overthrows can’t quite be erased just yet. However, if Milton is able to play with accuracy and touch, Tennessee should absolutely be in the thick of the SEC race.

Can the Tennessee defense improve?

Other concerns turn to the defensive side of the ball. The Tennessee defense was maddeningly up and down in 2022, shutting down Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Clemson but getting lit up by South Carolina, Alabama and Florida.

Connelly points to the cornerback spot as a key for 2023.

If ... there’s a No. 2 cornerback. The Volunteers jumped from 50th to 21st in defensive SP+, but that was mostly due to a strong run defense; the pass defense left something to be desired.

Kamal Hadden was strong but had no lieutenant. Five different non-Hadden corners started at least one game, and they all allowed at least a 75 QBR in coverage. Everyone’s back, along with BYU transfer Gabe Jeudy-Lally, but someone needs to develop into a big-time Hadden complement.

The cornerback position has a ridiculous amount of bodies and experience. But can anyone emerge from the pack? You’d figure Gabe Jeudy-Lally came here for a reason with just one season left to play, but he’ll have to fight off vets like Warren Burrell, Doneiko Slaughter, Brandon Turnage and Dee Williams, along with freshmen Rickey Gibson and Jordan Matthews. Tennessee certainly will have the ability to stay fresh in the secondary, but getting a few of these guys to really stand out from the pack is a big key during fall camp.

Going hand in hand with the secondary is the pass rush, which will see new names take on big roles this year. Connelly points out that Tennessee was forced to blitz a ton last season, highlighting Tennessee’s inability to get pressure with four.

If ... the pass rush steps up. Tennessee blitzed on 35% of dropbacks (21st in FBS) but managed just a 30% pressure rate (50th) and 5.2% sack rate (87th). Only one Volunteer recorded more than three sacks (Byron Young), and he’s gone. This seems problematic.

Problematic, sure, however, Tennessee has infused the edge spot with talent. The Volunteers have a steady presence in veteran Roman Harrison, and behind him they have four blue-chippers ready to roll. Joshua Josephs and James Pearce got their feet wet last year and should be ready to step up into bigger roles now. True freshman Chandavian Bradley and Caleb Herring have also entered the mix, bringing athleticism and length. Are they ready to contribute and make an impact? That remains to be seen.

Bonus: If ... the offensive tackle situation is resolved.

Throwing my own personal concern into the mix here — Tennessee has to replace Darnell Wright at right tackle. Wright was one of the best in the country at that position, and the falloff could be significant. Gerald Mincey should stay on the left side, but what happens on the other side will be a big deal for this offense.

Jeremiah Crawford, John Campbell and Dayne Davis are all candidates to win the job. Whoever does get the gig must keep Milton upright, who has struggled with pressure and pocket presence in the past.

Replacing Jerome Carvin at guard shouldn’t be glossed over either. Veteran Ollie Lane appears to be ready to take over there, finally getting his chance to start.

We’ll start to get answers to all of these questions just a few weeks from now, as Tennessee is set for their opener in Nashville against Virginia.