Let's pause expectations for Tennessee football in 2023 until it wins a big game, like Florida

Jabari Small didn’t shy away from saying it.
This Tennessee football team isn’t the same as last season.
Granted, the veteran UT running back didn’t mean it in a negative way. But it needed be said – for him, for his teammates, for fans, for media, for all of us – before the Florida game next Saturday.
These 2023 Vols aren’t the same as the 2022 version, which reeled off the program’s best season in more than 20 years.
“It’s a different team. I don’t know what that (identity) is,” Small said after UT beat Austin Peay 30-13 on Saturday at Neyland Stadium.
“But obviously we know this is a different team. We don’t have the same type players. But people step into different roles. I don’t know that it needs to be different. But it’s not the same team as last year.”
Again, Small was stating the obvious. Every team must create its own identity, and every season stands alone.
We all need to be reminded of that before assuming these Vols (2-0) will simply pick up where last year’s Vols left off.
And there’s no better time than following UT’s lackluster win over Austin Peay (0-2), an FCS foe that you’d expect it to beat by twice the margin that it did. After all, the 2022 team would've won that game in mere minutes.
Vols must be better to beat Florida
UT coach Josh Heupel reacted to the win with the level-headed approach that you’d expect.
He didn’t freak out or overreact. After all, UT won the game.
But he didn’t pretend like the Vols’ performance was good enough to beat Florida or any SEC team, for that matter.
“The job for us is to be the best football team on that field every Saturday,” Heupel said. “You walk off the field and see the scoreboard and you either accomplished that goal or you didn’t.
“We’ve got to learn and reset and grow from it. As we head into conference play, we’re going to need to be better than we were tonight.”
Despite the performance, Heupel said his team was focused.
But it’s reasonable to wonder if any players rested on their laurels because of last season’s crazy success – an 11-2 record, a short-lived No. 1 ranking in the College Football Playoff poll and an Orange Bowl win.
And it’s OK to admit if the rest of us did, as well.
There’s no guarantee that these Vols have a Heisman Trophy candidate or a Biletnikoff Award winner like last season’s team. And winning nine, 10 or 11 games isn’t the birthright of this UT team.
Standard of 2022 Vols is a heavy burden
“Reset” is the word that Heupel used to define his team’s transition from the Austin Peay game to Florida. And that’s good advice.
How we think about this team’s capabilities should be reset, especially on offense.
Just because Hendon Hooker was college football’s most efficient quarterback doesn’t mean that Joe Milton will be.
Just because Jalin Hyatt made opponents pay for leaving him open doesn’t mean these wide receivers will.
Just because last season’s offensive line controlled the line of scrimmage doesn’t mean this unit is up to that task.
That’s not to say that high expectations should be changed or lowered. But perhaps they should be paused, at least until UT wins a game that makes a statement.
Beating Virginia and Austin Peay didn’t fit that bill. But beating the Gators in The Swamp certainly would.
Let’s see if these Vols can do that before we assume anymore.
The 2022 UT team didn’t have to carry the burden of the previous year’s exceptional standard. So neither should this one.

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