Rocky Slop: Florida takes down Tennessee to clinch SEC East

Florida Gators
East mode.

The day Dan Mullen was introduced as the Gators’ new head coach, he talked at length about giving relentless effort in all he did to restore the program to a championship level. Last night on Rocky Top, his Gators took a major step toward doing so.

Heisman front runner Kyle Trask threw for 433 yards— the tenth most in a game in school history— and Florida’s defense did what it had to do in a 31-19 victory that secured the Gators a spot in the SEC Championship Game. The win is Florida’s fourth straight over Tennessee, and their fifteenth win in the last sixteen games in the series. Following the regular season finale next week against LSU, it’ll be off to Atlanta for Florida’s thirteenth trip to the title game since its inception in 1992, which is tied for the most alongside Alabama, their opponent-to-be.

Florida’s going to have to play a lot better than it did against Tennessee if it wants to put up a fight in that one, though.

The Gators opened the game with a field goal by Evan McPherson, but then both offenses stalled to leave the score at 3-0 after one quarter. No sooner had the second quarter started than the defense promptly got run over for an eleven play, 96 yard touchdown drive. Along the way, true freshman quarterback Harrison Bailey completed passes of 19 to Velus Jones and 13 to Eric Gray before finding Gray for a 15 yard, go ahead score. That staked Tennessee its first lead over Florida since the end of the 2016 meeting.

Florida, to its credit, then woke up, calmed down, and picked it up on both sides of the ball. Trask led the Gators into the end zone for the first time with a six play, 75 yard drive that featured a lethal dose of Kadarius Toney and that Trask finished off with a screen pass to Trevon Grimes, who picked up some blocks and trotted onto the checkerboards to give Florida the lead for keeps. Tennessee’s next drive stalled, and a bad sequence became worse when a fake punt failed thanks to a drop by Jimmy Holliday.

Florida then stalled and Evan McPherson missed a field goal, but the Gator defense locked down and forced another punt right before the half. The offense then redeemed itself with a ten play, 80 yard touchdown drive to finally establish some breathing room. That drive was highlighted by a tremendous pre-snap from Kadarius Toney, who lost his defender before leaking into the flat for an easy touchdown reception to make it 17-7 Florida at the break.

The Gators picked up right where they left off in these one half. Trask found Kyle Pitts flying down the sideline for an easy 42 yard gain; a few moments later, he found Grimes again for the touchdown. Punts then filled the air for the remainder of the third quarter before Florida put it away early in the fourth with one last scoring strike. This one featured a heavy dose of Kyle Pitts, who caught three passes from Trask before the Heisman contender found Jacob Copeland in the back corner of the end zone to make it 31-7.

And then Florida took a nap, allowing the Vols to rack up some serious garbage time statistics. Tennessee abused Florida’s defense on touchdown drives of 94 and then 96 yards on their final two series of the game; unfortunately for them, the second one ended with less than thirty seconds remaining in the game. The Gators had long prior wrapped up the victory, and the division, rendering the Vols’ rally too little too late. And when the clock struck zero, Florida had a 31-19 win, and a spot in Atlanta locked up.

But aside from the raw irritation that came with allowing a pair of touchdowns with a prevent defense, Tennessee definitely triggered some alarm bells. The Vols were missing sixteen players following a COVID outbreak within their program, and came into the game with a defense statistically even worse than Florida’s and a true freshman signal called making his first start. Yet Florida could only muster a grand total of 19 rushing yards, and allowed Bailey to find some success early in the game before clamping down later. The Gators also got sloppy in the tackling department late, allowing Ty Chandler and Eric Gray to pick up some additional yards after first contact in the fourth quarter.

Needless to say, that’s not going to cut it against Alabama in two weeks. The Crimson Tide have beaten everybody they’ve faced by at least three possessions, including a 52-24 stomping of the Texas A&M team that handed the Gators their lone defeat. Florida is now down to one final tuneup game against an outmanned LSU squad to get itself prepared for that showdown in Atlanta.

But for a team that had been getting beaten out by Georgia for the SEC East, it’s at least worth stepping back and recognizing how far Florida has come so far. And Mullen’s team made sure to do that in the postgame locker room, dancing and celebrating the completion of the first major checkpoint of their quest to the top of college football. To win a national championship, a team (usually) needs to win its conference, and to win its conference, a team needs to win its division. For all that the Gators may have done well or not so well this season, they will forever get to say that they accomplished that first critical piece.

And barring a complete meltdown against LSU, in thirteen days they’ll have a one game season to forever give themselves the right to say even more.

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