In the immediate aftermath of the Florida loss last year, the conversation centered on what most fans believed to be coaching errors: not going for two up 26-14 with ten minutes to play, and a confusing final drive with Tennessee running only four plays before attempting a 55-yard field goal despite having 1:26 and two timeouts left. As time passed, memories of that painful day in Gainesville have centered more on Florida’s 4th-and-14 conversion, and rightfully so. But much of the larger conversation on the Vols, last year and this year, has remained on the conservative nature of its offense, a primary suspect in last year’s losses.
We wouldn’t use the word “explosive” to describe Tennessee’s game plan against the Gators last year, and the Vol offense finds itself 112th nationally in Bill Connelly’s explosiveness ratings so far this year. But the thing about Tennessee’s game plan against Florida last year? It worked.
The Vols averaged 5.99 yards per play against Florida last year. That’s the best Mike DeBord’s offense did against power conference teams not named Kentucky and Vanderbilt. Tennessee has in fact bested that number against Kentucky every year under Butch Jones, but in the non-Kentucky/Vandy power conference division only 2014 performances against South Carolina and Iowa have been better during his tenure. And I don’t think anyone is going to confuse any of those defenses with Florida’s, who only allowed more yards per play to LSU and Michigan last year.
Hey, I wish we’d gone with something other than Josh Dobbs running for a loss of four on third down on our next-to-last drive too. But other than that one play? I think we’ve allowed runaway conversations on DeBord and risk management to convince us to criticize the Florida performance when we should be praising it.
Sure, Dobbs was only 10 of 17 for 83 yards passing. But the Vols rolled up 254 yards on 51 carries, the first FBS team (‘sup, 2013 Georgia Southern?) to run for 250+ on the Gators since Alabama in 2009. How did the Vols do it, other than incredible individual efforts from Josh Dobbs and Jalen Hurd? By setting up the Gators with a healthy dose of first down passing.
After the Vols started their first drive with a 16-yard run by Jalen Hurd, Mike DeBord dialed up seven first down passes in a row, including the Dobbs-to-Jennings-to-Dobbs trick play touchdown. None of the other passes went for more than seven yards, but the variety itself helped Tennessee then unleash first down runs of 29, 17, and 21 yards in the second and early third quarter.
The Vols didn’t try the Gators downfield - maybe it’ll be different with the emergence of Josh Malone this time - but still managed to be creative enough to take advantage of Florida’s defense and score what should have been more than enough points to win. And that’s been the blueprint every time the Vols have beaten Florida since the two became divisional dance partners in 1992. Through multiple coaches, coordinators, and quarterbacks, the Tennessee teams who have tried to beat Florida in a shootout have all lost. Heath Shuler came in second in the Heisman but lost at Florida 41-34. Peyton Manning threw for a million yards against the Gators and went 0-3. Tyler Bray and the 2012 Vols got blown by in the fourth quarter.
What has beaten Florida: blue-collar efforts on both sides of the ball. Even the high scoring Vol victories have been led by dominant rushing efforts: Travis Stephens in 2001, 44 carries for 171 yards setting the stage for Erik Ainge and James Wilhoit late in 2004. This team can blue-collar with the best of them. But last year also showed us DeBord and the Vols can be creative and force an elite defense to account for multiple options.
So yeah, maybe they trot out Malone v. Tabor and our guy gets the best of the match-up Saturday. We’d eat that up. But the Vols don’t have to go four verts to shake Florida’s defense up. The Vol offense won’t just automatically go against a defense that fancies itself the best in the nation by running Dobbs more; it will take more creativity, but don’t confuse creativity with recklessness. Keep an eye on Ethan Wolf and Jason Croom. When the Vols get Dobbs going in the run game and Alvin Kamara involved in the passing game, the tight ends are most likely to be the beneficiaries. Wolf and Croom trail only Josh Malone in yards per target so far this year.
Tennessee’s offense needs to be smart more than it needs to be anything else. That’s what we pay DeBord the big bucks to do. They were better against Florida than many of us remember last year. And they may not need to be as different as many of us believe to make the difference this year.