Nichols: In Florida Loss, Tennessee Offers More Glimmers of What It Could Be

Tennessee is still a few roster moves and execution fulfillments from winning — or even competing — in games against today’s elite teams of the SEC. But Saturday’s first half against Florida can certainly serve as a building block to more success in the Josh Heupel era.

To put it simply, Tennessee may have played its best 30 minutes of football this season in Saturday night’s first half at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

The lights were on. The cameras were flashing. The 20-point spread — and the 11th-ranked Gators’ stadium-shaking environment — carried an intimidation factor that was supposed to put UT away early, maybe even in the first quarter.

And yet, here came Josh Heupel’s Vols, who, for at least half an hour, portrayed the swagger that’s rumored to come from the Tennessee orange britches they wore in front of a national audience on ESPN.

Undeterred by a raucous crowd of 88,478 in The Swamp, Tennessee made several brilliant plays en route to an early 14-10 lead that it could have parlayed into the biggest win of Heupel’s UT career in his first SEC test as head coach.

Except then Emory Jones did his best Tim Tebow impression, the Vols failed to execute a response, and the Gators rolled up 28 unanswered second-half points for a 38-14 win — Florida’s 16th out of the last 17 against Tennessee.

“Obviously, extremely disappointing that the second half unfolded the way that it did,” Heupel said. “We competed and we responded extremely well in the first half all three phases of the game. I thought [there was an] opportunity in the second half, didn’t take advantage of certain opportunities and didn’t play smart football down the stretch. Not a question of wanting to as we came out of the tunnel for the second half, but obviously not good enough to cut it or smart enough competitors to go play the way that we needed to as a good football team.”

The prime example of those “missed opportunities” came early in the third quarter, courtesy of an essential drop from Jimmy Calloway.

With the Vols trailing 24-14 and facing a crucial 4th-and-5, Calloway’s hands turned to stone when he could have had a first down and maybe a lot more.

Instead, Florida capitalized on the turnover on downs by marching 70 yards in eight plays for a 31-14 lead that put the game out of reach.

Heupel, in summation of Calloway’s drop and several others, was succinct: “You’ve got to make those plays, and I didn’t feel like we did that.”

Believe it or not, though, there is good news — at least for those who have DVR. Because that first half was well worth savoring, especially if Tennessee can sustain it going forward.

First there was Tiyon Evans, who sprinted 47 yards for a game-tying score off a well-designed screen pass out of the backfield.

Then there was JaVonta Payton, who took a perfectly-thrown Hendon Hooker deep ball — in a perfectly-timed first for this offense — 75 yards for a go-ahead touchdown early in the second quarter. It was Tennessee’s longest pass play in six years.

Finally there was Alontae Taylor, who made a stop that’s all too fitting for a senior defensive back and Tennessee native who grew up dreaming of playing for the Vols.

With the Gators ahead 17-14 and driving late in the first half, Taylor ripped the ball away from Florida’s Jacob Copeland before Aaron Beasley made the recovery. The sequence kept Dan Mullen’s offense out of the end zone and, despite a wide-right kick from Chase McGrath to end the half, sent the Vols into the locker room with Tennessee fans’ most frustrating yet addicting takeaway from this game: hope.

And that, as they say, is what kills you.

Because even through Tennessee’s dumbfounding penalties (nine players on a punt return), plethora of injuries (Cooper Mays, for example) and pure lack of second-half execution (two words: dropped passes) — there remains reason for optimism going forward.

For starters: this team, at least for this writer, has found its quarterback. A week after piloting the Vols against Tennessee Tech, Hendon Hooker went 13-for-23 for 221 yards and two scores with no turnovers against the Gators’ defense. 

Granted, Florida was without its top cornerback, Kaiir Elam.

But if the injury that forced Hooker out of the game in the fourth quarter doesn’t linger next week (and Heupel had no update), then Tennessee has cemented its QB1. 

“I thought he handled the noise, the communication, for the most part in a really positive way during the course of the game,” Heupel said. “Handled the ups and downs and he continued to fight and compete and do it in a positive way there on the sideline in his demeanor, too. A ton of positives there.”

The Virginia Tech transfer wasn’t perfect, sure.

On his deep connection to Payton, though, Hooker held tight to the starting job by doing what no Tennessee quarterback had been able to in three games before Saturday: he tossed a long ball, in-stride, on a play that should be a staple considering the Vols’ freakishly fast receiving corps.

Milton, meanwhile, returned from injury — playing only when he had to, according to Heupel — only to overthrow a simple shovel pass in the second half. That’s about all that needs to be said, as the Michigan transfer completed 25 percent of his passes for 54 yards.

Another positive from Saturday is Tennessee’s running back room, which remained strong even after Evans went down. Evans took three passes for 71 yards and a touchdown, while he and Small combined for 22 carries and 109 yards — an average of 4.95 yards per carry — against a Florida front that held No. 1 Alabama to 91 rushing yards last week.

Yes, you read that right. Tennessee rushed for more yards against Florida than Alabama did.

The Vols’ offense also finished with 423 total yards and 20 first downs. Last week, the Crimson Tide finished with 331 and 19, respectively.

While one can’t exactly apply a transitive property of victory via statistics, the numbers are still worth noting.

So, too, is a 2021 Tennessee trait that you can’t measure on paper: “fight.”

Heupel used that word in reference to Florida this past week, but it’s also a characteristic that seemed to be missing under Jeremy Pruitt.

Like its loss to Pitt, UT’s loss in Gainesville was frustratingly avoidable. But give these Vols credit where it’s due: they kept punching (especially on Taylor’s turnover), and carried themselves in a way that even made Dan Mullen take notice. 

“That was a different looking team than I saw last year, to be honest with you,” he said. “How they played, their intensity, their toughness, their physicalness.”

Now, the real question is whether Tennessee can couple that fight with execution and intelligence through the remainder of its schedule.

Two winnable games are next, with next weekend’s away matchup at Missouri preceding a visit from Shane Beamer and South Carolina in Neyland Stadium.

Then Lane Kiffin will stroll back into Knoxville for his first return to Neyland Stadium as a head coach, and the season will be almost halfway over.

Will Tennessee fold this year as it did at the midpoint last season?

"We will not fall apart this year,” Alontae Taylor said brazenly. “And you can quote me on that."

Only time will tell if Taylor is right. 

But if the Vols can bottle up Saturday’s first half and sprinkle those aspects on each remaining game (no need to save any for a Vanderbilt team that lost 62-0 against Georgia), then they might start getting somewhere.

They certainly made progress in Gainesville, whether you choose to see past the scoreboard or not.

Cover photo courtesy of Tennessee Athletics Communications