Reality has arrived. This is not last year. How expectations got puffed up so big remains a mystery. Top 10 in the country, are you kidding me?
Joe Milton is not Hendon Hooker 2. Missing links from the offensive line have left glaring weaknesses. Alleged improvement in the secondary is a myth. Florida exposed other gaps in the Vol defense. The net result was humbling.
For the 10th consecutive time, the Gators defeated Tennessee in The Swamp. Josh Heupel may have learned something. He is 0-2 down there.
The coach said what had happened in previous years would have no bearing on the Saturday evening game.
Thousands and more thousands of bloodthirsty fans are convinced that Florida has Tennessee’s number. It isn’t exactly voodoo but their confidence and aggression rubs off onto players.
These Gators are not yet great but they sure were better than the Vols. They almost scored a knockout in the first half.
After one brief fling, a Milton touchdown pass to Ramel Keyton, Tennessee tempo and precision turned into confusion and chaos. Florida dominated the second quarter, 20-0. It ran for 122 yards and passed for 72. It had eight first downs. Tennessee had one, 27 yards rushing and three yards passing.
Florida quarterback Graham Mertz was 17-of-20 for 146 yards and a touchdown in two quarters. Second-team running back Trevor Etienne ran wild. That combo and Vol failures may have been the worst look of the exciting Heupel era, even worse than the stampede at South Carolina last November.
“Nobody was doing what they needed to do at the level they needed to do it,” Heupel said.
Ouch – down goes the offense and defense.
“That can be run game, protection, quarterback play, wide receiver play … And that starts with me and our coaching staff, too. We’re in it together.”
There was some strange coach-think late in the half. Tennessee was down 26-7. Three Jaylen Wright runs moved the ball 25 yards to midfield. It seemed time to throw deep.
Wright ran again. He was stopped with 1:33 left. Instead of a pass, Wright lost a yard on another run. After that, the Vols counted fingers and toes while the clock ran down to 0:35.
At long last, Milton threw a pass. It was tipped. Jackson Ross punted.
Bizarre? Can you believe running out the clock while 19 points behind? Last year, Tennessee led the country in big-play offense.
Tennessee was better after the rest stop and an encouraging, little pep talk. It never threatened to catch up. There was an illustrative moment in the third quarter. Tennessee went for it on fourth and one at the Florida 17. Wright was stuffed. Nobody blocked anybody.
What are Heupel and his people to do? Milton wasn’t nearly bad enough to change quarterbacks and, what’s more, Nico will be a freshman all season.
Milton finished 20-of-34 for 287 yards with two touchdowns and his first interception. He threw a pop-up as he was hit. Questionable decision. The pick led to a TD.
Joe made some good throws. He hit Squirrel White for 41. He hit Dont’e Thornton for 43. Bru McCoy turned a catch into a 55-yard touchdown.
Obviously, none of that changed the game. Final was 29-16.
Some mistakes are individual. Many are partnerships. Vols lost both sides of the line of scrimmage. They again endured 10 penalties. Five were false starts, pressure or crowd-related. Tackling was poor. Some said awful.
“You can look at tackling and not getting off the field on third down,” Heupel said.
“Offensively, you can look at pre-snap penalties and lack of efficiency and all of it.”
The offensive line may turn into a serious problem as the schedule heats up. Cooper Mays will help when he gets well. This group has not been lifted by strong recruiting.
Tennessee is notorious for pass defense deficiencies. So it remains. There were plays when the Vols actually looked to be playing one-hand touch instead of tackle.
The injury to veteran Keenan Pili left a linebacker void but there is hope youngsters will improve with age.
Right now, all the Vols can do is get emotionally ready for Texas-San Antonio. It appears survival after that will require better organization and really rapid improvement. Tag, coordinators Tim Banks and Joey Halzle are it.
There were weird end-of-game incidents. Florida coach Billy Napier called time out with 14 seconds remaining, probably to soak up the satisfaction.
Heupel called time with nine seconds to go, probably to delay the celebration.
Vol tackle Omari Thomas ran over Mertz as he stalled before kneeling. That led to pushing and shoving and a few flying fists. The SEC might hand down punishment.
Coaches shook hands. There was no world war. Napier later said, “How sweet it is.”
That was believable. This was his signature victory. He works in a pressure cooker.
Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is email@example.com.