I feel it's appropriate we title this post after a reason to throw a yellow flag, being that we saw 26 of them for 244 yards. But that's neither why the Vols lost, nor the biggest takeaway from this contest.
Did we overvalue Tennessee coming in? That's almost impossible to tell because of the injury to Justin Hunter, which all signs point to being one that will sideline him for a long time. Did we undervalue the Gators? To me, Florida was who we thought they were: Chris Rainey is spectacular, and the Gator defense created the necessary havoc to keep the Vols out of sync. A big part of that havoc was, surprise surprise, stuffing the running game. We joked coming in that maybe Tennessee should just throw it every down, but today it wasn't funny.
We also said that there was no reason to expect the worst against Florida, because all the major players in this rivalry have changed. The names may have changed, but here's what remains the same: Tennessee's inability to run the football against the Gators:
- 2005 - 25 carries, 66 yards
- 2006 - 23 carries, -11 yards
- 2007 - 21 carries, 37 yards
- 2008 - 31 carries, 96 yards
- 2009 - 32 carries, 117 yards
- 2010 - 23 carries, 29 yards
- 2011 - 21 carries, -9 yards
Derek Dooley should be the first to tell you that we don't need to celebrate moral victories. That was for Lane Kiffin and last year's team. I take no general solace in, "Hey, they only beat us by ten!" However, given what we saw today, there are some specific reasons to feel good about this team's future:
Tyler Bray is legit. I mean, we knew that, but he showed it to us today against a good defense with zero help from the running game, or his center. How much better could Bray have been if he had someone who could hit him in the hands with the shotgun snap? If James Stone can't get off a good snap when he's staring down a good nose tackle, he can't play center for us.
Regardless, Bray hung tough and played really well in his first hostile road start, and did so with no run game, no serviceable center, and no Justin Hunter. He didn't lock in on Da'Rick Rogers in Hunter's absence; it was true freshman DeAnthony Arnett who led the way with 8 catches for 59 yards. Overall nine Vols caught passes, including Hunter; Tennessee will need more from Zach Rogers and Arnett, and have a conveniently placed off week in front of them to figure out how to handle his absence.
Bray wasn't perfect, and put up the sort of numbers we thought we'd see coming into the year: 288 yards, 3 TDs, 2 INTs (though that last INT was in a situation where we had to start forcing it). But for all of his young mistakes, which weren't very many considering, he still made several bigtime throws, and still gives this offense the ability to score points on just about anyone. It won't be what it could've been with Hunter, but it can still be good.
Tennessee lost all composure when Hunter went down, and that's understandable. For most of the first half it was all of our worst nightmares from The Swamp: special teams disasters, missed tackles, and an inability to do anything on our half of the field.
But a game that could've turned into another 59-20 didn't. That's thanks in large part to our defense, who played exceptionally well after the first drive. A.J. Johnson had a mental mistake that turned into an 83 yard Chris Rainey touchdown, but other than that freshman bust, the Vols slowed the Gators down. It was the sort of effort I thought would give us enough to win on offense, but again, that all changed without Hunter.
But Tennessee has been excellent in short yardage situations, didn't get beat over the top (though I'm not really sure Florida tried), refused to break when facing terrible field position situations in the first half, and still has plenty of room to grow. We've seen young Tennessee defenses improve over the course of a year before, and we can see it again - there's reason to feel optimistic about this defense's future.
Overall, it's about what we thought coming into the year. Florida is still more talented. The Gators executed on both sides of the ball enough to win the game, to their credit. Tennessee showed more maturity this time around, battling back from true adversity with Hunter and staying in the game the way they didn't against good teams last year.
These Vols, on paper, will still be good enough to entertain beating Georgia in Knoxville, and will still be good enough to entertain shootouts with the likes of Arkansas and South Carolina. But if we don't find some reason to make defenses at least blink at a play action fake, LSU and Alabama will bury us alive.
At the end of the day, it's the Gators - they win their seventh straight in the series, and they do so by obliterating Tennessee's run game for the seventh straight year. We've seen Tennessee look horrible in the ground game against Florida before, but come back with decent efforts later. We'll need it less this season than in other years. But can Tennessee establish anything positive in the run game against the other SEC teams they'll face? We'll see.
So we go to an off week in search of new threats in the passing game, greater discipline on defense, and anything that might resemble a positive running play. The sooner we find them, the sooner the Vols can grow into the team we all hoped they could be.
But we're not there yet. This day belonged to the Gators, yet again.