I stood there on the very top row of the upper deck in Section II, my arms behind me, draped over the iron bar and my hands clinching the criss-crossed gates that separate frustrated fans from free-falling into the shadow of the Tennessee hills.
I'm not suggesting the morbid thought ever crossed my mind during Tennessee's 37-20 how-did-this-happen-so-quickly meltdown against the Florida Gators. The only reason for that mental image is, in the wake of Trey Burton's 80-yard run following a Marsalis Teague missed tackle, the Gators' three-play, 70-yard postmark and a Frankie Hammond long catch-and-run just to rub it in, I felt like the only thing holding me up was the iron namesake of General Robert Neyland.
The way the excitement had died and the wind was knocked out of a rowdy crowd of 102,000-plus, maybe I was the only thing holding the stadium up, too.
There was the usual pain of a loss ... especially a loss to Florida, which, more often than not, is the season's first. But there was more. There was that feeling that we'd squandered so much -- the opportunity to remain firmly in the national spotlight with the college football world watching, the chance to impress the most impressive group of recruits to watch a UT game in person in a decade, the potential to beat a Gators team that was beatable and perhaps most importantly, the ability to take away any of the questions [at least for a while] surrounding Derek Dooley and his staff.
Instead, we're left with more questions. Will Dooley ever win a big game? Can we re-learn how as a program? How does this much talent blow it so epically? How did it slip away so quickly? When will we ever be able to play with our two biggest rivals again?
There are no answers today. We lost the game, we lost one of our top defensive players in free safety Brian Randolph, we lost our national ranking and any buzz that we'd gained, and we lost confidence in our coaching staff once again.
What else is there to say? I guess it's a good thing that I'm not numb to it yet, but that may not be so far away. Just so many disappointing losses that you can take before you say, "I just don't let it get to me anymore." It still eats away at my soul.
There was the flicker of hope just before we started walking back to the car. Mississippi State had only beaten Troy 30-24, Missouri isn't dominant, Vanderbilt looks bad, South Carolina has chinks in its armor, Georgia allowed Florida Atlantic to score 20 points. We are an imperfect team, but we've got nine games left and we cannot give up on this coaching staff, these players or this season. Not just yet.
As we were walking dejectedly out of Neyland, a half-hearted chant of "It's great to be a Tennessee Vol" echoed through the tunneled ramp with my voice joined. A gentleman behind me said quietly to his wife, "Well, it used to be." In a comforting tone, she whispered back, "It will be again, honey. Someday."
Still, we wait...
Onto the trending report. I'm going to try not to dwell too much on Florida this week after this post, because I know none of you guys want to rehash it. I hit the "delete" button on my DVR for Gameday, the actual game and I doubt I even watch the Derek Dooley Show. So, you guys help me out if I mis-remember some things. I'll write much shorter on the Final Player Report. This is my post-game spiel.
- AJ Johnson. He's a monster. He had 11 tackles and a tackle for a loss and was awesome in the Wildcat package, getting a first down and scoring a touchdown on his two carries. He flew all over the football field on Saturday night, and while he wasn't perfect, he was far-and-away our best defensive player. The Vols retired No. 45 before the game for legend John Majors. The last person to ever wear that number might make a case for having his name etched along the stadium walls, too.
- Daniel McCullers. There wasn't a single time against the Gators that he looked like a big, clunky, unathletic player. I remarked at the Vol Walk that McCullers "don't look like he weighs 360." He was unblockable most of the time he was in the game, finishing with three tackles and one TFL. Personally, I wish the Vols would have played him more. He's only going to get better and better, and having the national spotlight on him after a USA Today article didn't matter.
- Pinning 'Em Deep. The Vols enjoyed a decisive field-position advantage throughout the entire game. Though the punts weren't always pretty, they were very effective. Matt Darr had four punts for a 44.5 average, Michael Palardy added three for a 44.3 yard average, and Tyler Bray had a 41-yard pooch punt that pinned the Gators deep. The special teams did its part in keeping UT at high-percentage situations defensively.
- Third-Down Defense. How inexplicable is this: The Vols allowed 555 yards to the Gators and were down right dominating on third downs. UF converted just three of 13 opportunities, and UT forced many punts and had many opportunities -- especially in the first half -- to put the game away.
- The Early Response. Tennessee got down 7-0, and it didn't matter. The Vols regrouped to go ahead 14-7 and looked like the better team. When things lagged late in the half and the Gators threatened to tie the game before the break, UT had a goal-line stand that looked like the kind of thing that could turn the complexion of the program and get everyone believing. We all know that didn't happen, but there was no early panic.
- Jim Chaney. I'm over it. I've said it a million-bazillion times: You. Cannot. Win. Consistently. In. The. SEC. Playing. Finesse. Football. We had better skill-position players, and that didn't matter in the least. When you're one-dimensional -- and that dimension is passing -- teams can play zone coverage all night and you're at a loss. Chaney never got into a play-calling rhythm against the Gators. We totally abandoned the run when we'd actually had some moderate success [for us] in the first half. We'll never have an adequate rushing game under Chaney. He may be a helluva guy, but he's not a SOUTHEASTERN CONFERENCE offensive coordinator. When you're running four-verts on second-and-6 from their side of the field, something is wrong.
- Tyler Bray and The Big Two. I've piled on Chaney a bit, but Bray still hasn't shown that he isn't ready to win the big game. I'm not really putting a ton of blame on him. He had a bad game, and most of that was because we didn't establish any sort of a run to keep Florida honest. He'll be a workout monster and probably leave to go to the NFL a year early, but Bray really is in the early stages of his maturation process as far as reading defenses and calling a game. We saw that again last night. Even some of his completions were major gambles. He finished with two interceptions that should have been four. On the long ball to Justin Hunter, if he leads him five more yards, it's a touchdown. Just a very poor performance for our leader. I love Bray, but it wasn't one of his better efforts. Yep, there's plenty of blame to go around [see next bullet] but there were numerous players who had opportunities to make the play to give the Vols decisive advantages or get them back in the game. Nobody made them. Hunter struggled to get open all night -- a lot of times against man coverage -- and he dropped two balls he should have had that were crucial and both on third downs. On the first one, Bray threw it just a touch behind him on a crossing pattern, but Hunter HAS to make that head-high catch. He didn't. Then, later in the game with UT desperately needing a score, he dropped a crossing pattern right in his numbers that killed the drive. Cordarrelle Patterson couldn't haul in what would have been a long touchdown grab that would have tied the game at 27-27. It was a smidge overthrown, but CP went out with one hand and brought it back to his body. If he goes out with two, it's a different ball game. Those are tough plays, but you have high expectations for megastars, and you have to make those plays to beat teams like Florida.
- Still-Disappointing Offensive Line. Bray was only sacked twice, but he was hit numerous times throughout the second half. The UT tackles had trouble all night with the speed rush, and Bray took multiple hits because of it. Tiny Richardson had two false starts and also an illegal motion penalty because he was lined up a step further back to help himself block the speed rush. Then there was a crucial false start penalty on [I think it was Kyler Kerbyson] when UT had it second-and-1 from inside Florida territory leading 20-13. That made it second-and-6 and changed the whole complexion of the drive. Two incompletions later, we were punting, and Burton's 80-yard run followed. There were also far too many one-yard, two-yard and negative-yard rushes in early down situations. Unacceptable. We were punished in the trenches.
- Big Plays. Burton's 80-yard touchdown run totally turned the momentum. Mike Gillislee turned right around and had a 45-yard run that then set up a 23-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Reed. Hammond's 75-yard touchdown catch after they picked up our Eric Gordon blitz and nobody was there to take his man. Randolph appeared to tear knee ligaments on the play getting juked and failing to make the tackle. Too many times, we fell victim to reverses and end arounds, failing to be disciplined enough to stay home. Jeff Driskel -- of course -- had his coming-out party against UT, avoiding pressure to throw beautiful passes and doing just enough rushing to sustain drives. We knew we'd have growing pains in the transition to the 3-4, but this was the extreme.
- Second-Half Adjustments. This game mostly boils down to coaching. UF's new offensive coordinator Brent Pease called a beautiful second-half game, taking advantage of Sal Sunseri's gambling tendencies on defense. Chaney continued to struggle calling plays with the game on the line, and Pease proved he's a much more innovative and well-rounded offensive coordinator in the process. Meanwhile, Florida DC Dan Quinn kept Bray guessing in the first half, disguising blitzes and playing enough zone to confuse the signal-caller into mistakes. Then, in the second half, the Gators pinned their ears back and came after Bray. We had no answers and were out-coached in every facet of the game. An asinine challenge by Dooley on a tipped ball in the first half nearly cost us a fumble-that-wasn't from Patterson, but thankfully, the booth reviewed and overturned it.