In any evaluation of what was a horrific mess of a game Saturday in Gainesville, one must keep in mind where Tennessee is coming from. People will criticize the coaches for failing to accept a game that Florida tried to hand to them in the first half, and there are places to criticize. But there are also places to remember that there is all too finite talent on this Vols squad, and in some cases, you're limited by personnel. The best example, as I see it, came on Florida's final touchdown drive that really put the game away. The Gators had a key 3rd and 8, and they threw a pass short of the marker. Tennessee had a defensive back in place, but he whiffed on the tackle, and Florida kept marching on. The defensive back in question was redshirt junior JaRon Toney. Toney walked on to the Tennessee team in 2010. As a running back. And, with no offense meant to Toney, who has worked extremely hard to get where he is, when walk-on running backs are playing key snaps in the secondary, you've got problems.
So what can we take from this game? Here's where we try to sort it all out.
- Devaun Swafford. The kid is a freshman and walk-on, and he's now picked off a pass and run it back for a touchdown against a big rival in an SEC stadium. If he never does anything else, it'll be a story to tell his grandkids. But the thing about freshmen is that they often get better. He won't be Eric Berry, but Swafford has a chance to be a lot better than your run-of-the-mill walk-on.
- Jalen Reeves-Mayhem. He only played special teams, but his open field tackling was absolutely terrific. Count me among those excited about the freshman from Clarksville. The depth at linebacker is not great, and JRM is doing everything he can to earn minutes there.
- Run defense. Last season, Florida ran for 336 yards on Tennessee on a whopping 7.8 yards per carry. This year? While the overall yardage still cracked 200, the Gators netted just 3.8 yards per carry. Some of that is because of fumbles in the backfield, but some of it is also because backup quarterback Tyler Murphy scrambled very well. Gator running backs ran for 3.7 yards per carry against Tennessee, and just 3.1 yards per carry against a fresh defense in the first half. Those may not be Alabama numbers, but that's a run defense that's not going to lose you a game.
- Never giving up. It's sad that this is an upward trend and not a minimum standard, but that just goes to show you where Tennessee has been the last few years. In the past, when the deficit has gotten to 21, 31 was not far behind. Saturday, Tennessee pulled back to within two scores and got inside the Florida 25 on a quest for a touchdown and onside kick that would give the Vols a shot at overtime. Butch Jones hasn't changed Tennessee's talent yet, but he's changed their attitude.
- Nathan Peterman. Eleven passes. Three carries. A total of two yards. And four turnovers. It's hard for his day to get any worse. Everybody who had watched the open practices or the Austin Peay game knew Peterman was worse than Justin Worley, but as the more boom/bust option, he potentially represented the best choice in a game where a game-manager didn't seem to be enough to get the job done. As it turns out, he wasn't the best choice. He played one of the worst halves Tennessee has ever seen from a quarterback and contributed to 17 Florida points off turnovers and 0 Tennessee points. I hope Peterman succeeds wherever he goes, but there's nothing suggests he is an SEC quarterback. Put him on the bench and start giving one of the true freshmen all of the second-team reps (and perhaps a scripted series or two in the first half) against South Alabama.
- The quick hook. If ever Tennessee needed a coach with a quick trigger finger, it was Saturday. After Peterman turned it over twice, some in our game thread were calling for a change. After Peterman turned it over thrice, everybody was calling for a change. The Vols were down just 10-7 at that point, and Jones left Peterman in. After another interception, it was 17-7. Tennessee would never recover. I can't stress enough that is is NOT Butch Jones' fault that there is no SEC-ready quarterback on the roster. There isn't, and there's nothing any coach could've done about it. But it is absolutely Butch Jones' fault that he stood behind a historically bad performance instead of switching to a known regular bad performer. And if the sideline reports are true about Peterman having injured his thumb before the interception that just slipped out of his hand? Then it's inexcusable.
- Taking care of the football. This goes back to Peterman to a large extent, but Worley chipped in a pair of interceptions on his own. Tennessee finished with six turnovers, and that's not likely to win many games.
- The offensive line. Yes, Florida has the best defensive front Tennessee will face this season. But the Vols offensive line is supposed to have four NFL prospects. It's supposed to be the strength of the team. The Vols averaged less than three yards per carry and had two fumbles forced in the backfield. The skill players all lack either talent or experience, so the offensive line has to dominate. The offensive line didn't even hold their own.
- The bounces. There were eight fumbles Saturday. Tennessee recovered two of them. What looked for all the world like a horrifically blown offside call turned into a fifteen-yard loss and took the Vols out of range for what would've been a game-tying field goal in the second quarter. Tennessee did enough to lose the game on their own, and even without the bounces, the Vols still got more charity from Florida than they're likely to get from any other SEC team. But the WKU magic did not travel to Florida Field.
- Defending a running quarterback. Tennessee was bad at this Saturday, but that's not new. I don't remember the last time Tennessee was good at this. Tyler Murphy accounted for just 218 yards, but he was efficient, averaging 9.6 yards per pass attempt and 8.4 yards per carry and doing enough for Florida to secure a victory. When your defense is slow, there are obvious weaknesses, and this is one of them. This defense can't adequately defend someone who is a legitimate threat both on the ground and through the air.
- Depth. Again, this isn't a new one, and it's not easily fixable. Depth will be an issue until Jones has had a couple recruiting classes of his own. Dooley didn't leave him much, and what depth there was, especially on the interior of the defensive line, is gone with the suspension of Maurice Couch and the injury to Trevarris Saulsberry. With the exception of a horrendous defensive play on Solomon Patton's touchdown catch, the Vols held the Gators in check for 25 minutes. After that, an exhausted defense allowed touchdowns on three consecutive drives, drives of 40, 79, and 84 yards. And, even with all the problems on the offensive side of the ball, that was the dagger.