The eventual result was a second straight victory, 24-10, at Florida Field for the Volunteers. UT also upset the Gators in 2001 for a chance to play in the SEC Championship game.
"This was a huge, huge, huge win for us....but what we do with it will validate the win or not," UT coach Phillip Fulmer said. The Vols held Florida to only 73 yards rushing and forced Martin and Leak to throw the ball. The rotating quarterbacks were a combined 25 of 54 for 276 yards but not a single touchdown.
"We didn't pressure as much as we normally do," UT defensive coordinator John Chavis said. "I thought they'd throw more down the field than they did." So did Florida's receivers, but the Steve Spurrier era is over at Florida, as Fulmer has reminded members of the media several times in the past two weeks, and Gators' coach Ron Zook made that evident as well on Saturday. "That was a team loss. We all got credit or that -- the defense, offense, special teams and coaches. When we win, we win together. When we lose, we lost together," Zook said.
Even though Tennessee's ground game controlled the tempo of the game in the second half, the Gators still had a chance to steal a victory by closing to within 17-10 as the fourth quarter opened. But in the heat and humidity of the subtropics, the Florida defense wasn't up to the task of stopping the Vols as it had in the first half.
Tennessee drove from its own 24-yard line for the hammer blow touchdown on a 9-yard run by Jabari Davis, who finished the day as the squad's leading rusher. After starting tailback Cedric Houston left the game with a hip pointer in the third quarter, Davis finished the day with 20 carries for 78 yards and two touchdowns.
"At halftime, coach Fulmer said pick your heads up. We got two more quarters to play," Davis said. "I think in the second half, we came out and pounded the rock the way we knew we could do it."
The first half was a tradeoff in sloppy play, with both teams turning the ball over but unable to capitalize except for the Gators' 47-yard field goal that came off a series given to them by a Tennessee roughing-the-kicker penalty with 9:26 still left in the first half.
Even Clausen's Hail Mary pass into the Florida end zone with no time left was a dying duck that bounced off a Gator defender into the hands of Banks. But that was enough to wake up the UT offense.
"Sometimes you get lucky and it set the tempo for the rest of the game," said quarterback Casey Clausen, who was 12 of 23 for 235 yards and one touchdown. "We max-protected and they only rushed three guys," he said of the play. "I never really saw the catch, but I saw our players jumping up and down." The long spiral headed into the right corner of the Florida end zone and two defensive backs went up for it, but Tennessee's Mark Jones out-jumped them and got a hand on the ball.
"I was just trying to keep it in play," Jones said.
Receiver James Banks, who testified that the play never works in practice, said the ball came down at him like it was moving in slow motion.
"I couldn't believe the ball was right there," he said. "You never know what will happen and that's why we keep practicing on those kind of things." What happened was a turnaround that left the Gators flat in the second half and gave the Tennessee offense enough confidence to begin moving the Florida defenders off the ball.
"It's another step in the right direction," Fulmer said of the victory. "Florida kept us off balance in the first half and our defense kept us in it. Our long drives in the second half (7 plays, 80 yards; 10 plays, 77 yards; 11 plays, 76 yards) were huge. The kicking game was huge for us today too."
Fulmer said this year's Volunteer squad has proven it has a different chemistry than last season's 8-5 squad, but whether that chemistry will continue to result in wins like the one against the Gators remains to be seen.
"A lot has been said about last year," Fulmer said "The truth is, we overcame a lot last year with some injuries and some attitude problems. You all make a big deal of it, but things change, and I'm very happy with where we are right now."