GAINESVILLE, Fla. — There were only a few inches difference between Florida and Tennessee on Saturday. That’s how far outside the right upright Tennessee kicker Aaron Medley’s 55-yard field goal attempt sailed as time expired. But after Florida’s 28–27 win, that distance will seem like miles for Tennessee coach Butch Jones, whose honeymoon period in Knoxville ended Saturday.
Here are three thoughts on Florida’s victory:
1. Youth isn’t an excuse for this loss
It’s a bit unfair because of how much rebuilding Jones has had to do at Tennessee—former coach Derek Dooley signed zero offensive linemen in 2012, for goodness sakes—but this collapse, combined with the collapse against Oklahoma on Sept. 10, will sap the optimism from a fanbase that has been desperate for its team to finally be good again. Jones has said all along that he doesn’t believe the Volunteers will be deep enough to compete for an SEC East title this year, but the problem for Jones is they should have been able to beat the Gators this year.
Jones does have a young team, but first-year Florida coach Jim McElwain can make the same excuse for his offense, which returned next to nothing on the line this season. On Saturday, the Gators played three true freshmen on the offensive line at different times. Antonio Callaway, the receiver who scored what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown, also is a true freshman.
McElwain’s advantage is that he did inherit a defense. (“Don’t let that next guy tell you he ain’t got any players,” former Gators coach Will Muschamp said after getting fired.) That defense kept Florida in the game Saturday when Bryan Cox Jr. forced and recovered a fumble in the third quarter to set up a Florida touchdown drive that seemed to reawaken the offense.
Still, this should have been the year the Vols could snap a losing streak against Florida that dates to 2005. Tennessee will be better next year, but so will Florida. The way the game ended will particularly vex Tennessee fans. The Vols were flagged for an illegal substitution as they tried to maneuver into field goal range. That forced them to use their final timeout to avoid a 10-second runoff. And as dozens of painful replays of the final field goal try will remind a tortured fanbase, a few yards closer and Medley probably makes the kick.
2. Will Grier came through in the clutch for Florida
Florida quarterback Will Grier has an amazing ability to make routine throws look difficult and difficult throws look easy. On Saturday, Grier struggled for much of the game. He might have even gotten yanked had sophomore quarterback Treon Harris—who led Florida to a comeback win last year at Tennessee—not been suspended earlier in the week. But when the Gators needed him most, Grier came through. He completed passes to convert four fourth downs on touchdown drives in the second half.
Jones called a third-quarter timeout that caused McElwain to rethink a 42-yard field goal attempt and instead go for it on fourth-and-six from the Tennessee 25. Grier hit Brandon Powell for a 21-yard gain, and Kelvin Taylor scored a touchdown on the next play that slashed Tennessee’s lead to 20–14. But the Vols followed that score with a 16-play, 70-yard drive that bled 7:26 off the clock and ended with a 10-yard Hurd touchdown run that gave Tennessee a 27–14 lead.
On Florida’s next possession, Grier hit Jake McGee for 10 yards on fourth-and-seven and later hit Powell for 16 yards on fourth-and-eight. That set up a five-yard touchdown pass to Powell. The next time the Gators had the ball, they were down to essentially their final play. But on fourth-and-14 from his own 37, Grier hit Callaway, who raced down the right sideline for a 63-yard touchdown with 1:23 remaining. The ensuing point after put the Gators ahead for good.
3. Joshua Dobbs did it all for Tennessee; it just wasn’t enough
Quarterback Joshua Dobbs led the Volunteers in passing (83 yards), rushing (136 yards) and receiving (58 yards). The receiving yards were especially critical. Tennessee trailed 7–0 in the first quarter and had struggled to get anything going offensively when Jones reached into the trick bag. The Vols took over on their own 42 after a Florida punt, and Dobbs took the snap and threw backward to freshman receiver Jauan Jennings. Everyone in the stadium knew it was a trick play, but everyone assumed Jennings would throw down the left sideline. Instead, he threw right toward Dobbs, who had a wall of blockers set up in front of him. The quarterback raced in for a 58-yard touchdown, but the Vols weren’t done with the tricks.
In the second quarter, Tennessee faced fourth-and-two from the Florida 47. Dobbs handed to Alvin Kamara, who threw to tight end Ethan Wolf for a 24-yard gain. Three plays later, Jalen Hurd scored on a one-yard run. Dobbs continued to pack the stat sheet later in the second quarter when he escaped down the left sideline for a 62-yard gain. That play helped set up a Tennessee field goal.