Opt outs, the College Football Playoff and the watering down of the postseason in general has left many fans wondering if bowl games still carry the same weight. Tennessee football at least proved they did.
The Vols showed a lot of enthusiasm and excitement in their 31-14 Orange Bowl win over the Clemson Tigers Friday night. It didn’t matter that both teams had a wave of opt-outs. UT was thrilled to be there.
“Man, bowl games matter,” Josh Heupel said in his postgame press conference. “You watch them every single day, you can see the energy, effort, strain, the excitement, the disappointment on the other side. They matter. It doesn’t mean that everybody has everybody for the ballgame. That’s just the nature of where we’re at during the course of bowl season.”
Wide receivers Jalin Hyatt and Cedric Tillman both opted out for Tennessee football. Linebacker Jeremy Banks did so on the other side. Hendon Hooker was obviously out due to a season-ending injury.
What did the Vols do? They found stars in Squirrel White, who had over 100 yards receiving, Aaron Beasley, who had two sacks, and Joe Milton III, who was the Orange Bowl MVP. Heupel touted the next man up mentality.
“We’ve got young guys that continue to get better,” he said. “I like the fact that our guys love being in the building. They love learning and growing. They enjoy who they’re doing it with. It allows us to continue to take strides, individually and then collectively as a football team. Where we started and where we are now in that way is so different.”
Appreciating these type of games is something Tennessee football needed to remember. The Vols did not fill the stadium when they went back to the Fiesta Bowl, at the time a consolation BCS game, a year after winning the national championship.
In that game, they lost to the Nebraska Cornhuskers 31-21. Four years later, the last time they played Clemson, the two met in the Peach Bowl. Again, UT was not happy to be there, and it showed, as they lost 27-14.
It seemed like the opposite was somewhat true Friday night. Vol fans were thrilled to be in the Orange Bowl, and the players who did show up played their hearts out.
“These guys are prideful,” Heupel said. “Clemson is prideful. When you line up and compete, man, you’re going to compete with everything that you’ve got. These are rare opportunities.”
Proof of how excited the Vols were to play in the bowl game came with the pass rush. Beasley had two sacks, but in his final game, Byron Young had two sacks as well. The defensive line brought pressure all night.
That resulted in the defense looking significantly better without Jeremy Banks this time than they did the first time, which was their loss at South Carolina. There was a lot of bend but don’t break defense in this one, but they showed up when it mattered.
“I think our defensive players continue to grow,” Heupel said. “We had guys that were playing in the middle part of our defense, more reps than they had been during the course of the season. It’s a prideful group. We continue to get better. There’s some youth back there.”