Vols kicking off with optimism after 8-month wait

Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Tennessee sixth-year senior quarterback Joe Milton III will start his second season opener for the team on Saturday against Virginia in Nashville, having guided the 2021 Vols to a 38-6 rout of Bowling Green.
Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Tennessee sixth-year senior quarterback Joe Milton III will start his second season opener for the team on Saturday against Virginia in Nashville, having guided the 2021 Vols to a 38-6 rout of Bowling Green.

Eight months have passed since Tennessee culminated a surprisingly strong 11-2 season with a 31-14 thumping of Clemson in the Orange Bowl.

This duration has lasted longer for some than others, but Volunteers third-year coach Josh Heupel summed up the feelings of many folks from Morristown to Memphis when he entered Monday's news conference and offered a familiar expression.

"It's football time in Tennessee," Heupel said.

The Vols will open their much-anticipated 2023 season Saturday (noon Eastern on ABC) at Nashville's Nissan Stadium against Virginia, a program that was 3-7 last November when an on-campus shooting resulted in the deaths of three players: Devin Chandler, Lavel Davis Jr. and D'Sean Perry. The Cavaliers then canceled their final two games against Coastal Carolina and Virginia Tech.

A moment of silence will take place before Saturday's kickoff, and Tennessee players will wear a helmet decal to recognize the Cavaliers who lost their lives.

Tennessee, which begins this season ranked No. 12 in the Associated Press poll, is a four-touchdown favorite. The Vols have been picked to finish second behind two-time reigning national champion Georgia in the Southeastern Conference's final Eastern Division race, while Virginia has been tabbed last in the Atlantic Coast Conference preseason balloting.

"We're all really excited," Vols senior defensive tackle Omari Thomas said earlier this week. "From starting the offseason in January up to now, we've just continued to grow together as a team. We battle at practice. We always compete against each other, but now it's time to actually just go out there and play against somebody else.

"It'll be fun just to go out there full of adrenaline and excitement. We just want to have fun and play with our hair on fire."

Neither starting quarterback began his college career at his current school, with Virginia's Tony Muskett having started at Monmouth and Tennessee's Joe Milton III at Michigan. This will be Milton's fifth start for the Vols since his arrival in 2021 and his second in a Tennessee opener.

Milton started the first two games of the 2021 season before injuring his ankle and getting replaced by Hendon Hooker. He started the last two contests of last season following a Hooker knee injury.

"I'm excited for him," Heupel said. "He's a guy who did it the right way when it didn't go his way early on. He looked at himself and saw how he needed to continue to improve to get better, trust in his coaches and the program, and believe in the guys around him inside of the locker room.

"He's put himself in a position to play at a really high level because of the work ethic that he's had inside of our program."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.