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We’re about to figure out what Tennessee has in Joe Milton

Go time for Joe — we’re about to learn a lot.

Virginia v Tennessee Photo by Carly Mackler/Getty Images

Back in November, the second version of the Joe Milton era at Tennessee began. It was about two games too early than anyone wanted, Milton included. The veteran, big-armed quarterback was forced into action after Hendon Hooker tore his ACL against South Carolina, which put Milton in a spot to get his feet under him ahead of a pivotal 2023 season for his football career.

Milton dazzled in the Orange Bowl win over Clemson, showing off the improvements that he had made over the last 15 months. Working behind Hooker, Milton was limited to garbage time in the offense, but even that work was noticeably different than his first couple of starts in Knoxville.

Everyone knew 2023 was Milton’s chance — his final chance at the college football level. Based off of the Orange Bowl alone, everyone had the right to be excited about his prospects for this year. However, through two games, it just hasn’t clicked just yet.

Milton has had his fair share of misfires so far, and his receivers have had just as many drops. For whatever reason, the chemistry just doesn’t appear to be there right now, which is something that is going to have to change as SEC play begins.

“End of the day, we’ve got to go make some plays,” Josh Heupel said of Tennessee’s passing game struggles. “That’s throwing it a little bit better. That’s catching it a little bit better. There’s big chunks of yardage in open grass for us to go make. Joe would tell you he’s got to hit a couple of those.”

Milton is 42-63 on the year, throwing for 429 yards and four touchdowns. There are probably another 150 yards left somewhere in there due to drops alone, but the offense as a whole just isn’t clicking like it did with Hooker. Frankly, it was unrealistic to expect that there wouldn’t be any falloff, but the struggles against Austin Peay were eye-opening to say the least.

And now there’s no time left. This Tennessee offense has to flush it and head south to kick off SEC play against Florida, at a place they haven’t won at since 2003. On paper, Tennessee should win this football game going away. However, these early sputters have left us all uneasy as the weekend approaches.

“At the end of the day you have to point out what needs to be corrected,” Heupel said. “You have to be truthful in what you’re seeing as a coach and players understand that, too. They see it. They recognize it. He understands the game. The great thing about Joe is he’s really been making really sound decisions. That’s in our run-pass option. That’s in our drop-back. We as skill players — and that can be wideouts, tight ends, running backs and him — just have to be a little bit better at times. Plan on us executing better this week.”

The viral flick-of-the-wrist bombs, the NFL Draft chatter, the Heisman buzz — it all rightfully came Milton’s way this offseason. Now it’s time to go prove it.

Not to be too dramatic, but this game absolutely sets the tone for the rest of 2023. You can’t go lose to Florida and expect to contend for the SEC East or a spot in the College Football Playoff. This is a game you’ve got to go win, plain and simple. Tennessee doesn’t even need a special performance from Milton to get the job done, they just need he and his receivers to do their job and make the routine plays. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen them do that yet this year. That must change on Saturday night in The Swamp.

It’s entirely possible that the coaching staff has kept some concepts under wraps, too. A bad Virginia team and an FCS opponent didn’t exactly require top-notch gameplanning, so expect to see some new wrinkles come out of the woodwork.

The real season begins on Saturday night in The Swamp. Which Joe Milton will show up?