GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Tennessee beat Florida, 13-23, on Saturday in The Swamp.
Since Florida scored the 23, the Gators officially get credit for the win. Still, it can't feel like a victory to a prohibitive national title favorite that returned a Heisman Trophy quarterback and its entire two-deep on defense. Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin gave the Gators every reason to want to beat the Volunteers by 100. He called them out in December. Then he called out their coach in February.
Florida should have ended Saturday with backup quarterback John Brantley chucking passes to wide-open backup receivers and Gators coach Urban Meyer barely stifling a grin. Instead, starting quarterback Tim Tebow played the entire game, and Florida looked anything but invincible.
"It wasn't how we envisioned it would happen, but it's a win," Tebow said. "That's enough for all of us."Compare Tebow's postgame attitude to Kiffin's."Were excited," Kiffin said. "There were a lot of young players playing in this game. A lot of our guys are going to be here a while. They know we get to play those guys every single year."
An emphatic win might have shut Kiffin's mouth for good. It might have planted doubts in the minds of recruits who listened to him sell SEC and national championship dreams. Meyer could have pointed to the lopsided score and assured future stars that Kiffin was all talk. Now, Kiffin can tell recruits that freshmen such as tailback Bryce Brown and free safety Janzen Jackson contributed mightily to a valiant effort against one of the greatest college football teams ever assembled, and if those recruits would just sign on the dotted line, they could put Tennessee over the top."I think we have a powerful message out in the country about what's going on in Tennessee football," Kiffin said. "I think you see it in the kids that just came in."
Kiffin's empty talk has been well chronicled. This all started Dec. 1, when Kiffin bragged at his introductory press conference that he looked forward to singing "Rocky Top" all night long after Tennessee beat Florida in The Swamp. On Feb. 5, a day after receivers Marsalis Teague and NuKeese Richardson, who previously had committed to Florida signed with Tennessee, Kiffin accused Meyer of breaking an NCAA rule by calling Richardson while Richardson was on an official visit to Knoxville. The only problem? No such rule exists.
The verbal salvos enraged the Gators. Given the uncertainty surrounding the Vols and the level of talent the Gators had back from a team that won the national title last season, Saturday's matchup seemed to pose a legitimate threat to Georgia Tech's 222-0 win against Cumberland in 1916 as the worst college football shellacking of all time.
After Tennessee's offense floundered in a 19-15 home loss to UCLA last week, the question wasn't whether Florida would win but rather by how much more than the four-touchdown spread. But then a funny thing happened. After stupidly pointing the opening kickoff directly at Florida return man Brandon James,who returned it 50 yards, the Vols held the Gators to a field goal on a short field. Then, running behind an inspired line, Tennessee tailback Montario Hardesty churned for 42 yards on the Vols' first possession to set up a Daniel Lincoln field goal.
Kiffin said that in the first half, he deliberately allowed seconds to bleed off the clock before sending in plays. That sped up the game and kept the ball out of Tebow's hands. Using the football equivalent of Dean Smith's Four Corners offense, Tennessee only trailed by a touchdown at halftime. If Kiffin had an SEC-caliber quarterback, the Vols might have had a chance to win for real. Kiffin showed no faith in senior Jonathan Crompton on Saturday, allowing him to throw only six times in the first half. The Vols came out firing in the second half, and Crompton promptly threw into double coverage. Two plays (both passes) later, Crompton was intercepted by Florida cornerback Joe Haden.
"I wanted to win the game," Kiffin said. "I didn't come down here to cover the spread or have a moral victory. I probably could have even kept it closer than it was if I'd continued to stay conservative there."
Still, the Vols hung tough. Florida was about to go in for a fourth-quarter score when Tebow dropped the football near the goal line. That set up a Hardesty touchdown that made it a two-possession game. Florida held on, and the game ended with Tebow taking a knee and Meyer and Kiffin exchanging a chilly handshake at midfield.
The Vols know what they are. They have a great defense led by one of the nations best players (safety Eric Berry) and an offense that would be just fine if the forward pass hadnt been legalized in 1906. They'll muddle through this year and try to recruit their way to future wins against the Gators.
But Florida is supposed to win the national title. To do that, it will have to shore up its run defense and find some receivers. The offense looked more like it did in 2007, when Meyer didn't trust anyone but Tebow or Percy Harvin to touch the football. Saturday, Meyer showed no faith in his receiving corps, which was without speedster Deonte Thompson (hamstring). If Florida wants to repeat, Meyer will have to find someone he can trust. That trust, Meyer said, is earned on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, not on Saturdays.
Offensive coordinator Steve Addazio said the fear of what Tennessee defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin might throw at the Gators limited the offense. Florida coaches catalogued the elder Kiffin's blitzes through his sterling career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and scrapped several plays that might not work. Then they rigged others to adjust to any possibility. They might have been guilty of over-preparing, because Kiffin didn't blitz as much as expected. Still, Addazio said, that beats the alternative. "If you don't [prepare], you've got a problem," he said.
Addazio won't lose sleep that his offense didn't roll up 500 yards. The situation called for ball control. When it really mattered, the Vols couldnt stop Tebow, who carried 24 times for 76 yards and a touchdown. "If youre judging us by whether we scored 50 points in the game," Addazio said, "that's delusional."
So should the Gators hang their heads? Of course not. They're 3-0, and they've got plenty of season remaining to correct their deficiencies. They looked out of sorts against Miami in week two and lost to Ole Miss in week four last season, and by January, they were crushing everything in their path. As for the future, Meyer didn't seem anymore concerned than usual."We're good," he said. "We're Florida. We'll do a good job recruiting. And the most important thing is this for this team right now to keep that edge. This team was actually good for us to keep that edge."
Besides, things could be much, much worse for the Gators. "You could be like USC," Addazio said.
So maybe both teams won Saturday. Florida's actual win could help the Gators in the more immediate future, while Tennessee's moral victory (sorry, Mr. Kiffin, that's what it was) could help in the future.
Late in the second quarter, Florida led 10-6. Tebow had plenty of time to throw, and he fired a rope toward James, who appeared to be wide open in the end zone. Before James could cradle the ball, Tennessee's Jackson, a player Kiffin swiped from LSU, knocked James into the second year of his NFL career. The play took place in front several dozen recruits. Before all is said and done, most will consider Florida and Tennessee. The Gators had hoped a blowout might convince those players that Florida will dominate the SEC eastern division in the present and in the future. Now, those players may wonder if, in spite of his bluster, Kiffin is actually building something real on Rocky Top.