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Front Page - Friday, December 1, 2023

Vols have higher expectations than 8-4

Tennessee receiver Ramel Keyton gets past a Vanderbilt defender for one of his two touchdown catches Saturday against the Commodores in Knoxville. - Photo by Tim Gangloff | Cal Sport Media

Ramel Keyton was among the University of Tennessee seniors who went out on a high note at Neyland Stadium with milestones against rival Vanderbilt.

Keyton had four catches for a career-best 122 yards and two touchdowns. He was the first Vol with multiple receiving touchdowns in a game this season.

Keyton says he’s proud of how much the seniors helped elevate expectations at Tennessee since the arrival of head coach Josh Heupel. But the 48-24 victory over Vanderbilt capped what Keyton called an “up-and-down season” for the Vols (8-4, 4-4).

“It’s not like Tennessee is expecting to win eight games, even though that may be good for other schools. But we roll with the standard,” he says. “Our expectation is national championship, SEC championship. Even though we didn’t get it this year, that’s still the expectation.”

The Vols finished .500 or better in SEC play for the third consecutive season, achieving that feat for the first time since a 16-season streak from 1989-2004. Tennessee has won 18 regular-season games under Heupel over the last two years, its most since also winning 18 with back-to-back 9-3 regular seasons in 2006 and 2007.

The waiting game

As Georgia and Alabama play in the SEC Championship game this weekend in Atlanta, the Vols will be waiting to see which bowl game they will be participating in this season.

It remains to be seen if sixth-year senior quarterback Joe Milton III will take another snap under center for the Vols. He might sit out the bowl game or the Vols might turn to the future and give freshman Nico Iamaleava his first career start.

If Vanderbilt was Milton’s final game, he went out with a flourish. He completed 22-of-32 passes for a career-high 383 yards and four passing touchdowns while also rushing for a pair of two-yard rushing scores.

Milton is the only UT player this century with six total touchdowns in a regulation SEC game, as well as the only Vol with four-plus passing touchdowns and multiple rushing touchdowns in any game since 2000.

“You go out with a bang. Every game you try to do that and the most important one is the last one inside the stadium,” Milton says. “You show a team that that’s how we play when we get inside this stadium. That’s the legacy that I am going to hold on to and leave it on to my guy Nico.”

Keyton and Milton were two of the 36 seniors who took part in Senior Day against the Commodores. Some have the option of returning with a year of COVID eligibility remaining.

“A lot of them were here when I first got here and chose to stay here through some uncertainty. They bought into our vision of what the program can and would be about. It’s a phenomenal group,” Heupel says. “We’ve had some disappointment in the results along the way, but this group, this team, continues to fight and compete extremely hard and prepare the right way. I’m really proud of them. That happens because of the leadership from that senior group.”

Redshirt senior tight end Jacob Warren was one of the holdovers from the Jeremy Pruitt era that was riddled with dysfunction, losses and NCAA sanctions. The Knoxville native grew up attending Tennessee games and understands the glory of the program’s past.

“I think this class kind of represents what it means to just have pride. There were a lot of opportunities for people to jump ship, for people to leave and for people to chase other things …,” Warren says. “Not to talk about the past, but this program has come a long way. Just the way we play the game has changed a lot since I have been here so that is something that I am very proud of that I had a hand in.”

The numbers game

Although Tennessee’s offense wasn’t as prolific this season as last when Hendon Hooker was at the helm with a healthier corps of wide receivers, Vanderbilt gave the Vols a chance to boost their statistics.

Tennessee’s 449 passing yards were the most of the season, eclipsing the prior high of 375 against UConn. Running back Jaylen Wright eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing mark with a 14-yard run in the third quarter. Wright became the 19th 1,000-yard rusher in a season in UT history and the first since Jalen Hurd had 1,288 on 277 carries in 2015.

Milton would have loved to see those kinds of numbers more often this season, especially in the four SEC games the Vols lost.

“But just playing inside this stadium one last time was amazing. I wish the guys that come up after us take it as seriously as us,” Milton says. “We left a legacy here that there is only one way we play when we get inside that stadium and that’s hard.

“There’s only two things you can control and that’s your effort and your attitude, so once you get inside that stadium and you put those jerseys on I hope you have [that].”