The Florida Gators overcame a slow start to hammer the Vols, 38-14, and claim their first SEC win of the 2021 season. What stood out along the way?
1: Florida-Tennessee is no longer a rivalry
It’s not just the fact that Florida has now beaten Tennessee five straight times, or 16 of the last 17 times. Fans who claim this series to be a rivalry often point to the 1990’s, and 2001 as their evidence, but even with those points in hand, Florida now has a 29-7 record against Tennessee in the last 50 years. That is not a rivalry.
In fact, it reads eerily close to the scorecard of the Florida-South Carolina series- which the Gators lead 29-9, with three ties. And in recent years, the games haven’t even been close. Since Dan Mullen’s arrival, Florida has blown Tennessee away by scores of 47-21, 34-3, 31-19 and now 38-14. As it stands right now, Tennessee probably sits seventh in line for the title of rival, with Georgia, FSU, LSU, Auburn, Miami and Alabama all in front of them. And in the last decade and a half or so, Missouri and South Carolina have presented far more problems for the Gators than Tennessee has.
So that’s the end of that.
2: A(nother) tale of two halves
Will the real Florida Gators please stand up? It’s very probable that the team we saw in the second half against Tennessee is the “real” Gator team, but we’re approaching the point in the year where it’s fair to wonder if this Jekyll & Hyde routine is not merely an issue of early season rust, but part of this squad’s DNA.
It’s one thing to shut it down with a 35-3 lead over a completely outclassed South Florida team, but slow starts against Alabama and now Tennessee are cause to look for the panic button. Florida, a three touchdown favorite, found itself trailing Tennessee 14-10 midway through the second quarter. No one play or one person was responsible for that, and that wasn’t a fluke- that was the result of a full 1.5 quarters of game action. Of course, football games are four quarters, not one and a half. And from that point on, what happened was what should have happened, and Florida blew Tennessee away.
But that doesn’t mean it can just be written off, not if this team wants to compete for championships. The most alarming thing is, it’s a complete team effort; so far, everything has either worked fluently or gone to pieces all at once. That includes both sides of the ball, special teams, coaching, and even playing with intelligence or not (see the muffed kickoff against Alabama).
Florida survived a sluggish start against Tennessee because the Vols simply aren’t very good. That wasn’t the case against Alabama, and won’t be the case against Georgia… or even Kentucky next week.
3: How was Todd Grantham not prepared for Tennessee’s tempo?
Going off of takeaway number two: yes, the sluggish start was a complete team effort. But the finger of blame has to come to a rest with Todd Grantham.
All his life, Josh Heupel has been known to run fast-paced tempo on offense. That goes back to his days at Central Florida, as the offensive coordinator at Missouri, the co-offensive coordinator at Oklahoma, and even back to his days as the Oklahoma QB coach, when his Sooners famously ripped off 99 offensive plays in a single game against Kansas in 2008 (yes, the year that Florida beat them to win their third national title). It’s not like the hurry-up offense was something that Heupel hastily installed last week in practice. That’s on his dog tag, so to speak. That’s the one and only thing he’s famous for.
So why Florida looked flummoxed by it, and as a result surrendered 423 yards of total offense, is a question that demands answers. Sure, 75 of them came on one busted coverage, and 47 more of them came on a screen play that Florida wasn’t ready for, but that only makes this defense look worse, not better. Those plays still happened, they counted, they can’t be discarded, and they just continue a tradition of Grantham’s defense being badly out of position and getting burned on big plays. And now with a bye week before the big showdown in Jacksonville, Georgia’s admittedly limited offense has been handed the blueprint for success.
To their credit, Grantham and his defense did make adjustments in the second half and kept the Vols off the scoreboard, and Trey Dean in particular was dialed in, making plays all over the field. But relying on halftime adjustments have to be seen as emergency medical care, not a real game plan. As mentioned multiple times now, a subpar first half might do the Gators in when it comes time to play the really big games.
4: Emory Jones put up Tim Tebow type numbers
Nobody will seriously tell you that Emory Jones is the second coming of Tim Tebow. That’s not fair to either of them. So let’s establish that from the get-go.
But Emory does now get to be compared to Tim Tebow in at least one way. Jones threw for 209 yards and ran for 144 more against the Volunteers. The last Florida QB to throw for 200+ yards and rush for 100+ yards in the same game? You guessed it, Tebow. And indeed, Jones does force opponents to at least somewhat respect both of those aspects of his game.
Now, there comes an obvious caveat to that. Jones wasn’t perfect against Tennessee. He failed to notice a streaking Jacob Copeland for what would have been a touchdown, and threw an ill-advised ball across the middle that, had it been three or four inches more off the ground, likely would have been intercepted. But Jones also refrained from turning the ball over for the first time all season, and he did it in a full, Anthony-Richardson-package-less game. Richardson may have the higher potential, but Jones is slowly proving himself to be more than good enough to win Florida games… if he can continue to take care of the ball.
And really- good for him. After waiting three years for his turn to run the show, taking some flak for not shooting out of the gates with video game type numbers against FAU and USF, and hearing the boos from his own fans against Alabama, he deserves this success.
5: Florida’s offensive line continues to get better
Anybody who’s read my thoughts over the past few years knows that I’m not exactly subtle when pointing out problems that fail to get corrected over a period of time. When something sucks, it sucks. And there’s been no shortage of game tape to support anybody’s complaints about the Gators’ offensive line the past two years.
So with that in mind: Florida’s offensive line, under the coaching of the much-maligned John Hevesy, has taken monster steps forward in the first four games of the 2021 season. No, it hasn’t been perfect, as Tennessee blew up five different plays for losses on Saturday. But by and large, the run blocking has been tremendous. On more plays than I’ve seen in any one game since 2018, Florida Gators linemen are exploding out of their stances, placing their hands perfectly, driving defenders back off the snap and creating seams. And the hungry veterans Malik Davis and Dameon Pierce are more than taking advantage.
Now: can this offensive line continue to continue to get better? Maybe. But the progress from December of 2020 to September of 2021- and even from week one to week four- has been hard to not notice. Shoutouts go to all five starting offensive linemen: Richard Gouraige, Ethan White, Kingsley Eguakun, Stewart Reese, and Jean DeLance, as well as key backups Josh Braun and Michael Tarquin… and of course, to John Hevesy.