It’s a New Year’s Six game that will be a playoff-caliber game in two years. However, sometimes it’s important to reflect and enjoy, and that’s the position Tennessee football is in right now.
The Vols arrived in Miami for the Orange Bowl against the Clemson Tigers Sunday night. While the game, set for 8 p.m. ET Friday, is the focus, Josh Heupel spoke Sunday more about the setting and how players can enjoy it.
“Our university’s extremely proud to be in this great bowl game, historic kind of bowl game,” Heupel said in his Sunday press conference. “It’s great to be in the city of Miami. We’re looking forward to a week of great festivities for our players and obviously a great opportunity to play a great opponent at the end of the week.”
This is the first Orange Bowl matchup for the Vols since Peyton Manning’s final game 25 years ago. The Orange Bowl was also the first bowl the Vols ever played in. That was on Jan. 1, 1939, to conclude their first ever SEC and national championship season.
Heupel said the players would enjoy the sun, eating the food in Miami and spending time on the beach. He noted that this is a huge step for the program.
“There’s a lot of proud VFLs, our former players, that are looking forward to getting down to South Florida and being at this football game,” he said. “This is an important step for our fan base, and I’m really proud of what our players and coaches have accomplished this season.”
The experience isn’t new to Heupel. He played in the Orange Bowl for the national championship as the Oklahoma Sooners’ quarterback in 2000, and he coached in it in 2004.
Embracing and enjoying the process leading up to the game was something Heupel noted he stressed upon his players. The popularity of the game itself was also something Heupel stressed enjoying.
“I’ve told them from the moment we found out we were going to be in this game that this is an iconic game,” he said. “It’s one that you’ll remember forever.”
Some players specifically have a reason to enjoy it. Joe Milton III will start at quarterback for Tennessee football due to Hendon Hooker’s season-ending injury, and he hails from Florida.
Initially a prospect out of Olympia High School in Orlando, Fla., in 2018, Milton is originally from Pahokee, Fla., which is in Palm Beach County. Heupel said it’s a homecoming game for him and touted his development from last year.
“He’s going to have a lot of family and friends here at the game,” he said. “This means a lot to him. He’s somebody that inside of our program has had a voice and has been a leader all year long and has prepared really consistently.”