After Tennessee football tight end Jacob Warren arrived at UT, he focused on playing one opponent.
It wasn’t Alabama.
It wasn’t Georgia.
It wasn’t Florida.
“Ever since I got to college,” said the tight end from Farragut High School, “I wanted to play Clemson. I don’t know what it was. I guess because they were a prolific program and at the top of college football for a couple years. Ever since then, I had my eye set on playing them and beating them.”
Tennessee’s impressive 31-14 Orange Bowl victory over Clemson, which won national championships in 2016 and 2018, fulfilled a long-time dream for the Vols’ fifth-year senior.
“It was awesome to be able to do it,” Warren said during the post-game locker-room celebration.
The magnitude of Tennessee’s victory wasn’t lost on Warren, whose father, James, was an offensive lineman for the Vols in the 1980s.
It was UT’s first 11-win season since 2001.
It was UT’s first New Year’s Six caliber bowl victory since the 2005 Cotton Bowl.
It was UT’s first Orange Bowl triumph since 1939.
“Obviously,” he said, “it’s a really big deal. I’m happy to be a part of it.”
And he was happy to beat Clemson, the ACC championships who have been one of the top five programs in college football over the last decade.
Warren said the victory gave Tennessee football “the ability to show where we’re at and the skill level we play at.”
Two years ago, Tennessee football struggled through a 3-7 season, coach Jeremy Pruitt was fired over multiple Level I recruiting violations and nearly 40 players hit the transfer portal.
Josh Heupel was hired in January 2021 to resurrect a once proud program. The Vols went 7-6 last year, then 11-2 this year with wins over Alabama, Florida, LSU and Clemson.
“It’s massive,” Warren said of the incredible turnaround. “That kind of teaches you, as long as you stay the course and buy into the program … and trust the process and grind every day, anything is possible.”
“Obviously we didn’t win a natty (national championship), but it’s a really big deal for this program.”
Did Warren sense the Vols were ready to play Clemson?
“Yes, I think so,” he said. “Sometimes in bowl games, distractions can come up and maybe people aren’t locked in here or there. This team did a really good job honing in on the details late in week. And we came out and performed, especially the defense.”
Yes, the defense.
A defense that was horrible against South Carolina and struggled against Alabama and Florida was up to the task against Clemson, holding the Tigers without a touchdown until 10 minutes were left in the game.
“Amazing,” Warren said of the defense. “I love watching them play. In a game where the offense was kind of struggling, we had some missing pieces … to watch the defense stop them over and over … it was awesome.”
One of the offensive stars for Tennessee football was Squirrel White, who had nine catches for 108 yards and a touchdown.
“Man, that kid is electric,” Warren said. “I’m excited to watch him next year and see how much he flourishes throughout his career.”
Warren is optimistic quarterback Joe Milton will flourish as well.
Milton was an efficient 19 of 28 passing for 251 yards and three touchdowns. He was named the Orange Bowl MVP.
“I think Joe has been ready for this moment, to step up a big game like this,” Warren said. “I’m happy he won the MVP and gets all the recognition because he deserves it. He’s one of hardest working guys I know. Super happy for him.”
Warren announced a few days after the Orange Bowl that he will return for a sixth season at Tennessee.
He’s looking forward to catching passes from Milton – but not oranges.
During a pre-bowl video, Milton threw an orange 110 yards.
“I’m not touching an orange from Joe Milton,” Warren said. “That thing would splatter all over the place like it did on that fence in the video.”