Tennessee defeated Florida in Neyland Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 24, by a final score of 38-33. It was the Vols’ first win over the Gators since 2016. Here are 10 things that stood out:
1.) Tennessee’s dominant offense
Let’s start with some positive points. And, obviously, the most positive was Tennessee’s offense. I noted earlier in the week that this would not be a typical Florida defense. The Gators typically feature an above-average offense and a dominant defense. This year’s Florida defense is a weak one by Florida standards, and the Gators gave up nearly 300 rushing yards to South Florida.
Nevertheless, Tennessee’s offense looked very, very good. Remember, this is a Vols offense that struggled quite a bit against Pittsburgh, the only other Power 5 team the Vols had faced thus far this season. And while Pitt’s front seven is good, the Panthers’ defense isn’t any better than Florida’s.
So this is the question: When is the last time a Tennessee team moved the ball at will against a Florida team the way this Tennessee team did today? There have been a lot of very good UT players (and very good UT quarterbacks) who haven’t moved the ball up and down the field successfully the way Tennessee did today. Think QBs like Casey Clausen, Tee Martin and even Peyton Manning.
Tennessee looked really good against Florida in the second half of the 2016 game. Prior to that, you’d probably have to go all the way back to the second half of the 1992 game to find the last time that the Vols moved the ball as successfully against the Gators as they did today.
UT finished with 576 yards of offense, and was 6 of 9 on third down.
2.) A Heisman-esque performance from Hendon Hooker
Hendon Hooker was very, very good. The senior basically put this team on his back and carried them to a win over Florida. If No. 5 hasn’t endeared himself to Tennessee fans yet, today was a legend-building performance. He was nearly flawless, completing 22 of 28 passes for 349 yards and two touchdowns, while rushing for 112 yards and another score. He averaged 8.6 yards per carry on the ground. His 349 passing yards were the most by a Tennessee quarterback against Florida since Peyton Manning passed for 353 yards in 1997. Final tally: 461 yards of total offense and three touchdowns.
I’ve been critical of Hooker’s performance through the first three games of the season, saying he was a good QB…just not the dark-horse Heisman candidate that some billed him as coming into the season. Tonight he looked very much like a legitimate Heisman candidate. It was an outstanding performance.
3.) Speaking of No. 5s…
The other No. 5 on Tennessee’s roster, defensive back Kamal Hadden, did not have a very good game. His performance jumped off the sheet for all the wrong reasons in the first quarter, when he missed a tackle not once but twice on the same play as Florida scored on a 41-yard touchdown pass (the first of the season for Gator QB Anthony Richardson). He also got picked on when Florida converted a fourth down in the fourth quarter with a long pass down the right sideline.
But Hadden did tie with Jeremy Banks for the team-high in tackles, with seven. And he also had the interception on the final play of the game, though it was largely a gimme created by Tennessee’s pressure.
4.) And speaking of AR…
Did it surprise anyone that Anthony Richardson looked like one of the SEC’s best quarterbacks against Tennessee, after looking like one of the league’s worst quarterbacks in the Gators’ games against Kentucky and South Florida the last two weeks?
Richardson entered Saturday’s game with zero touchdown passes against four interceptions through Florida’s first three games of the season. Tennessee fans speculated that Richardson might hurt the Vols with his legs, and he did to an extent, with 62 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
But Richardson averaged only 3.6 yards per carry, and his long was 11. In other words, Tennessee contained him pretty well. Through the air, though, he passed for a career-high 453 yards and two touchdowns. His completion percentage was suspect (24 of 44) and he had an two turnovers, but it was easily his best performance of this young season.
If that surprised anyone, it shouldn’t have. Coaches and players change, but one thing Tennessee has consistently done through the years is make average Florida quarterbacks look like superstars. It’s incredible, and even though the game ended in a loss for the Gators, tonight was another chapter in that long and frustrating saga.
But, as I wrote earlier in the week, it probably should’ve been expected.
5.) Heupel’s lack of a killer instinct
Tennessee fans are rightfully excited about the Vols’ direction under second-year head coach Josh Heupel, who received a contract extension and pay raise earlier this week and is now making $5 million per year. But the one criticism of him has been that he hasn’t learned, as a head coach, to keep his foot on an opponent’s neck and go for the kill.
That was the case again tonight, as Florida nearly won the game despite being down 38-21 midway through the fourth quarter.
It would’ve been a comeback for the ages if the Gators had pulled it off, and they darned nearly did. Part of that was just excellent play on Florida’s fault; the onside kick was executed to perfection. But Tennessee completely took its foot off the gas when it received the ball with a 38-27 lead, concentrating on simply running out the clock rather than trying to close the game out. Then came a disastrous defensive performance, which allowed Florida to score quickly.
That’s somewhat excusable on Heupel’s part; he wasn’t a new coach when he came to Tennessee, but this is just his second year as a head coach in P5 football. But he really does need to develop that killer instinct. When your opponent’s throat is exposed, go for the jugular.
6.) Is Tim Banks the future?
One major criticism of Tennessee defensive coordinator Tim Banks in 2021 was his reluctance to bring pressure on defense. He tended to rely on his defensive line too often, holding back on blitzing his linebackers to help cover up liabilities in the secondary. The DL struggled mightily to pressure opposing quarterbacks, which is part of the reason why so many QBs had career days against Tennessee last season.
In Tennessee’s game against Pittsburgh two weeks ago, it was apparent that Banks had learned his lesson from last season. He blitzed more against the Panthers than he did against any team the Vols faced last year, and the results were in the pudding: 16 quarterback hurries, which helped keep the Panther offense off-balance (and knocked Pitt’s starting QB out of the game while hobbling the backup QB). Tennessee didn’t blitz much early against Akron, but picked up the pressure some as the game progressed.
Tonight against Florida, Tennessee seemed to back off the pressure way too much. It wasn’t that Banks didn’t dial up any blitzes; he did. But the blitzes seemed to largely be called at the wrong times. Allowing Florida to run for a third down conversion in the shadow of their own goal line in the third quarter, when the defense clearly had the wrong play called, was bizarre.
Overall, Banks’ play-calling was conservative tonight. It was weird, considering the way the Vols have had success through the first three games of the season. There were times when Tennessee was successful at getting pressure on Richardson by blitzing, but they didn’t really do it enough.
Then came Florida’s final touchdown. Tennessee slipped into prevent mode and allowed the Gators to drive 71 yards in seven plays while taking just 54 seconds off the clock despite having no time outs. It was way, way, way too easy. And it nearly resulted in the Vols losing the game.
Sadly, it appears after tonight’s game that the Pitt game was fool’s gold, and that Banks truly hasn’t learned anything from what happened last season.
I am hesitant to place too much blame on Banks for Tennessee’s lack of defensive success tonight; he’s still hamstrung by a lack of talent in the secondary. But the play calling is 100% on Banks and it was suspect. (To his credit, he did blitz on Florida’s hail mary attempt on the game’s final play, and that was big.)
7.) The bottom line on the defense…
The bad: Tennessee’s defense gave up 594 yards of offense to Florida. The ugly: Tennessee allowed Florida to convert 5 of 6 fourth down tries. That’s atrocious.
There were some bright spots. For one, you kept thinking that Tennessee would win the game if they should just create a turnover. The Vols did that by poking the ball away from Richardson as the Gators threatened to score. Jeremy Banks recovered, and Tennessee promptly scored to make it a 38-21 game in the fourth quarter.
There was also the play of Byron Young, who continues to have a successful senior season. He had four QB hurries.
8.) Conservative vs. aggressive
I commented near the end of the first half that Tennessee was being out-coached by Florida. Billy Napier chose to be very, very aggressive with his game plan, both offensively (going for it repeatedly on fourth down) and defensively (bringing a lot of pressure on Hooker). By contrast, Heupel was very conservative with his game plan. The end result was an 11-point underdog leading by three near the end of the first half.
Tennessee did manage to score at the end of the first half, thanks in large part to a beautiful 43-yard pass from Hooker to Ramel Keyton. Keyton got the start due to Cedric Tillman being out with an ankle injury, and made an improbable diving catch to move the ball into Florida territory. The Vols would go on to score with seven seconds remaining in the first half.
That was an important scoring drive, because it gave Tennessee the lead at halftime, and the Vols were scheduled to get the ball to start the second half, meaning UT could go from trailing to leading by two possessions without Florida’s offense touching the ball. But it should be pointed out that Heupel was going to be content to let time tick away and punt the ball back to Florida. But Napier chose to use a time out on third down with the Vols backed up deep.
To Heupel’s credit, the drive started at the Vols’ one-yard-line with 2:50 remaining until halftime. But even after Tennessee picked up a first down beyond the 20-yard-line, they wasted precious time and appeared hesitant to go tempo. The long ball to Keyton changed things and Tennessee was then in position to score, but if not for the Florida time out on third down and the diving catch by Keyton, Tennessee would’ve gone into the half with a 14-10 deficit. I was a little befuddled by Heupel’s approach on that possession. It worked out well, obviously, but I felt it was another example of Florida’s leave-it-all-on-the-field aggressive approach vs. what felt very much like a play-not-to-lose conservative approach by Tennessee for much of the first half.
9.) Not that Napier’s a genius…
After Florida upset a Top 10 Utah team in The Swamp in the season opener, more than a few observers were touting Napier as the next coming of Nick Saban. But in the three games the Gators have played since that time, the former Louisiana Tech coach has looked very suspect.
To be fair, I thought Napier was an excellent hire for Florida. In fact, I wished Tennessee had hired the Cookeville native when Jeremy Pruitt was fired two years ago. But he’s made some boneheaded coaching moves, none bigger than his decision to go for two after a fourth quarter touchdown tonight.
Florida cut the deficit to 38-27 when Montrell Johnson Jr. scored on a five-yard run with 4:49 remaining. I don’t understand the logic of going for a two-point conversion to make it a 9-point game vs. an extra point kick to make it a 10-point game, and neither does anyone else wh ohas commented on Napier’s decision. I joked that he must be trying to help out the betters who had taken the Vols at -10.5.
But do you remember back in 2015, when Tennessee went to The Swamp and Butch Jones foolishly declined to go for two to make it a 14-point game after a touchdown early in the fourth quarter? Vols fans ripped him, though Jones refused to concede making a mistake. Instead, he insisted that his chart (coaches carry charts advising them whether to go for one or two depending on what the score and game situation is) advised him to go for one…which was obviously BS. Tennessee wound up losing by one point. Tonight felt very much like fate was repaying Tennessee fans for Butch Jones’ blunder. There was absolutely no reason for Napier to have gone for two, and if he had simply kicked an extra point, Florida could’ve forced overtime with a field goal after recovering the onside kick. Thank God for small favors.
10.) Wild atmosphere upcoming
I’m not sure Tennessee can beat LSU in two weeks. The Tigers aren’t that good, and I’m certainly not convinced that they’re coached well, but the Vols’ defense is very suspect, and LSU is one of the toughest places to play in the SEC. It’s an especially notorious tough place to play when the games are at night (we won’t know fora few days what kickoff time will be).
But if Tennessee can beat LSU, that sets up the possibility of a meeting of undefeated when Tennessee and Alabama meet on the 3rd Saturday of October the following week. Neyland Stadium is already sold out, and the cheapest seats in the house are going for nearly $300 each. Meaning it will wind up being a more expensive ticket than today’s Florida ticket was, and today’s ticket was very expensive.
If you think it was a raucous atmosphere and a highly-anticipated game at Neyland Stadium today, you ain’t seen nothing like what’s coming if Tennessee defeats LSU next week.
The last time Tennessee carried an undefeated record into the Alabama game was 1998. The last time both teams were undefeated when the rivalry game was played was 1989. John Majors’ Tennessee team was ranked No. 6 and Bill Curry’s Alabama squad was No. 10 going into that game at Legion Field. Alabama won in an offensive shootout, 47-30.
Do I think Tennessee will beat Alabama? No. But what a fun atmosphere it would be.