Not only is “The Streak” over, but Tennessee’s 38-28 win over the Florida Gators proved once and for all that ducks do in fact pull trucks.
The Vols were a resilient group against their arch nemesis Saturday afternoon. Although they won by double digits and led by 17 before Florida scored a garbage-time touchdown, Tennessee could’ve won by at least three scores.
A number of dropped passes, missed opportunities in the red zone and a head-scratching interception assisted in a 21-3 halftime deficit. But in the second half, the Vols overcame their mistakes and dominated in every phase, outscoring the Gators 35-7 the rest of the way.
Now, it’s time to move on.
In a vacuum, the win over the Gators isn’t as impressive as the fan reaction on Twitter is making it out to be. Ending the 11-year losing streak to Florida is a nice storyline, but storylines don’t always dictate the quality of a win. The Gators entered Saturday’s game just as hobbled as Tennessee, with backup Austin Appleby taking the reigns at quarterback and big-play wide receiver Antonio Callaway nursing a quad injury.
Although Florida dominated statistically on the defensive side of the ball, the jury was still out on its defense, considering they faced anemic offenses such as UMass, Kentucky and North Texas. The secondary was undoubtedly talented, but the front seven was still unproven against SEC-caliber offensive lines. That’s not to say the Vols’ offensive line is impressive though. Throughout the first three games, they dealt with sporadic play despite returning four starters from last season’s front five.
But the main question was whether or not head coach Butch Jones could formulate a gameplan and avoid boneheaded decisions late in big games that have plagued his team in the past. Against the Gators last season, Jones received heavy criticism for a litany of choices he made.
Tennessee lost by one point.
Saturday was billed as the program’s biggest game in a decade and the biggest of Jones’ career. Given those set of circumstances, when the Vols fell behind 21-0 in the first half, the fan base immediately called for Jones’ head. Predictably, after Tennessee’s onslaught in the second half, fans suffered from amnesia and started talking about the SEC Championship.
But a win over this version of the Florida Gators doesn’t automatically catapult the Vols into that conversation.
What’s deeply troubling about Tennessee is that they have failed to put together a complete game. In three of the four games, the Volunteers have trailed in the first half by double digits, falling behind 13-3 to Appalachian State, 14-0 to Virginia Tech and 21-0 to Florida. While they’ve managed to mount comebacks in each game, it’s incredibly taxing both physically and mentally for a team to constantly be playing from behind. Against stronger opponents such as Texas A&M and Alabama, falling behind early won’t bode well for Team 120.
Also, quarterback Joshua Dobbs continues to struggle with accuracy and decision making. His completion percentage fell victim to a number of first-half drops, but the blame shouldn’t be solely placed on the receivers. More often than not, Dobbs doesn’t place his passes where the receiver can catch it in stride. He did so on his touchdown pass to Josh Malone, but there were a number of passes either thrown behind or too far ahead of the target. Then, there was the awful interception in the back of the end zone that kept Tennessee from crawling back into the game in the first half. What Dobbs saw on that play remains a mystery.
That’s not to say there weren’t positives. Against the Gators, Jones and his coaching staff exorcised demons from last season’s nightmare in the swamp and delivered an imaginative second half. Jalen Hurd’s touchdown reception on a wheel route came off a beautifully designed play that left him as wide open as a player can possibly be. The defense also picked up its intensity in the second half after a sluggish performance in the first. Led by defensive end Derek Barnett and linebacker Colton Jumper, Tennessee’s front seven manhandled the trenches and gave Appleby little time to connect on deep routes he burned the Vols with in the first half.
The comeback was impressive. After being criticized as a mentally fragile bunch, Tennessee has done nothing but respond to adversity this season. But Jones realizes that this is only “one game” and that the season is only one-third of the way through.
Jones didn’t accept one of the nation’s most prestigious coaching jobs to simply beat the Gators. He accepted the job on Rocky Top to compete for national championships, to thrust the program back to its glory days in the 1990s. In order to reach those heights again, it’s going to take a lot more than defeating a questionable Florida team.
What’s more telling of this Tennessee team, is how they respond. The biggest challenge isn’t overcoming the mental hurdle of beating an arch rival you haven’t topped since Pangea split. The biggest challenge is mellowing out the emotional high, and understanding there are bigger and better fish to fry.
The Vols face another rival in Georgia this upcoming Saturday. Although the Bulldogs have looked anything but impressive this season, it remains a challenging road test against a team coached by a former Alabama defensive coordinator in Kirby Smart. If Tennessee comes away victorious, then its stranglehold on the SEC East becomes a lot tighter. If the Vols drop the ball and lose to an inferior opponent, then matchups with Texas A&M and the Crimson Tide lurking on the horizon could send the season into a downward spiral.
Edited by Dalton King
Featured image Sumner Gilliam, courtesy of WUTK Sports