The stage was set for one of those home underdog makes good sagas. The Vols could have avenged last season's embarrassing blowout, break the Gators grip on the series, showcase a new offense and coaching staff makeover. Reclaim a fan base disenchanted by a opening season loss to UCLA that looks worse by the week. They could have brought down thunder from Rocky Top in the form of cheering masses. They could the program right back into the rankings and written their names in Tennessee football history.
And yet with all those rewards piled before them, the Vols immediately went into 17-0 hole from which there was no escape. Not only did they fail to perform as a well coached, cohesive team, they were overmatched across the board more speed, more athleticism more poise, better execution, superior depth and command. Florida going into four-corner mode designed to run out the clock while kicking the occasional field goal along with plenty of butt. The Gators didn't want to expend anymore resources, assume anymore risk or exhaust anymore energy than was necessary to subdue the Vols.
That's one reason it's easy to look at the stats from this game and overstate the performance by UT's defense. Tennessee's last stand was really at the opening bell when the Gators took advantage of a 53-yard kickoff return to set Tim Tebow and arsenal up at UT's 44. Florida systematically moved that distance in a workmanlike eight plays.
The Gators took over on the ground in the fourth quarter controlling the for 10:53 of the period. They consumed roughly half (6:53) of the second quarter with a 12-play drive. Moreover the Vols couldn't force any turnovers.
Obviously the defense was dealt a bad hand in terms of field position, but Florida converted 8 of 13 third down opportunities and only punted once. We are left to imagine what the Gators might have been able to do with the passing game if they had needed to crank it up. Fact is they didn't and so it's difficult to say just how well UT's defense played. However it did a good job of limiting Tebow although he made several sensational plays off his strength and toughness. Harvin was largely kept under wraps coming off an injury but he still gained 80 yards in six touches including a 34-yard TD reception.
Tennessee's offense is like the work in progress sign outside a sewer: you can't tell how much progress is being made but it clearly stinks. If that sounds unkind I refer you to the barbarians at gates of Thompson-Boling, where forever is heard a discouraging word and many others not fit for publication.
At this point it's a painful reality, but even at its worst there are flashes of something coming together. The 72-yard, 14-play drive that consumed 8:00 of the clock before ending in a fumble at the 1, was crisp until the miscue. UT's lone scoring drive covered 63 yards in 11 plays. Then there was the 11-play, 60-yard drive that ended on a fourth down interception in the end zone. The importance of drives is knowing the offense can consistently move the ball against a what appears to be a very strong Florida defense. Leaving 14 points on the goal line is not the formula to beat Florida.
The kicking game cost Tennessee as much as anything Saturday those so-called hidden yards are huge. Two punt returns for 92 yards and a touchdown along with the 53-yard kick return that set up the Gators first TD. It's a problem that has persisted over recent years.
Ultimately it's a team sport and this was a team loss with plenty of blame to go around. In fact one unit is always affected by the performance of the others. The truth is the Vols flunked the test, and passing out grades would only be piling on. Bottom line: Whether it is or not, UT simply didn't appear to be a well coached team.