For the first time since 2004, Tennessee has beaten Florida. The Volunteers snapped an 11-game losing streak to the Gators with a 38–28 comeback win in Neyland Stadium. Here are three thoughts on the pivotal Tennessee victory:
1. It looked like Austin Appleby’s game. It became Josh Dobbs’s instead
Tennessee quarterback Josh Dobbs entered the game as one of the nation’s most maligned players. Despite the Vols’ undefeated record, Dobbs’s inconsistent performances against Appalachian State and Ohio gave the fan base pause and branded him as one of the more overhyped players in the country.
When Dobbs started Saturday’s matchup a putrid 1 for 8 for 11 yards, it looked like the criticism was merited. The game appeared to belong to Florida QB Austin Appleby, starting for the injured Luke Del Rio, who guided the Gators to a touchdown just 85 seconds into the contest and pushed them out to a 21–3 halftime lead.
Then the second half came along. With slightly better protection from a struggling offensive line and better integration of his legs, Dobbs was the primary catalyst for the Vols’ the 498 yards of total offense (336 of which came in the second half) and 35 second-half points. The problems that plagued the Volunteers in the first half—poor pass protection, dropped passes and bad red-zone play—virtually disappeared in the second frame.
Tight end Ethan Wolfe, who dropped a key pass in the first half, carefully secured a tough throw from Dobbs for the touchdown pass that cut the Gators’ lead to 21–17. Jauan Jennings, another player who committed an inexcusable drop in the first half, burned the Florida secondary en route to a 63-yard TD reception that he juggled before securing and racing down the right sideline. After a dysfunctional first half, the Volunteers coalesced and scored four passing touchdowns in 18 minutes against a defense that hadn’t allowed one all season.
With Georgia’s blowout loss to Ole Miss earlier in the day, Tennessee is now in the driver’s seat to win the SEC East. When Butch Jones was hired, one of his primary assignments was to beat Florida. It’s safe to argue that Jones can feel more secure about his employment after this win.
2. Tennessee’s defensive line was ferocious
Tennessee defensive coordinator Bob Shoop arrived from Penn State this season. One reason he was hired, he claims? “Beat Florida.” Shoop was the architect of a Vanderbilt defense that ended a decades-long losing streak to the Gators. Saturday was his opportunity to do it at another school that was significantly more desperate.
Despite missing three of his top defenders to injury and arguably his best player (linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin) limited with a balky arm, Shoop’s unit put smothering pressure on Appleby in the second half and functionally stopped a Florida offense that had the Vols confused before halftime. The misdirection and jet sweep plays were no longer effective, star receiver Antonio Callaway was no longer running all over the field with impunity, and the Appleby had barely any time to throw.
It was the defensive line that did most of the work. A swarming Tennessee front denied Appleby’s ability to check down, find his desired receiver and get into a rhythm. The Gators had three total yards—three!—for the first 19 minutes of the second half. Tennessee certainly has the athletes to cause every SEC team problems. The question is if Shoop schemes them as well every week as he did in the second half this week.
3. Florida isn’t there yet
The Gators have one of the nation’s best defenses, and it showed during the first half. Quincy Wilson, the player who guaranteed a Florida win because “nobody has ever seen a duck pull a truck,” came up with a crucial interception in the end zone. Defensive tackle Caleb Brantley, a potential first-round pick, did an admirable job limiting Dobbs and running back Jalen Hurd. And Jalen Tabor, considered by many to be the best player on the loaded defense, contributed a pick of his own.
The offense has been Florida’s concern since Urban Meyer’s departure, but offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier appeared to have gameplanned Appleby perfectly in the first half, limiting the Purdue transfer’s risks and allowing him to make some big throws to spread the offense out.
Those early successes made the Gators’ second-half collapse one of the worst in college football this season—and that includes an Ole Miss team who surrendered 20-plus-point leads twice. After Florida’s defense thwarted anything Dobbs tried in the first half, the Tennessee quarterback started to run through huge gaps. Appleby, who got big gains on swing passes and integrated several different receivers early, couldn’t find time to throw the ball. The Gators didn’t get a first down in the second half until 7:40 remaining in the fourth quarter, by which time they had already gone down 17 points.
Maybe it was coaching, maybe it was motivation, maybe it was the famously rowdy Tennessee home crowd. Whatever it was, Florida’s collapse was one of the most thorough that will happen all season.