Things looked dark for a half, but Tennessee recovered in a big way Saturday, digging out of a 21-0 hole by scoring 38 straight points en route to a 38-28 victory against the Florida Gators in front of College GameDay and a checkered Neyland Stadium. For a half, the Vols looked their best. But that 21-0 deficit ensured that there would be plenty to correct, despite the big win. So what's trending up, and what's trending down for the Vols?
- Winning. It's the most important thing, and for the last eleven years, it hasn't happened against Florida. This year, it did.
- Flipping the 2015 script. In Tennessee's first three games against Power Five opponents in 2015, they blew three double-digit leads, losing all three games. In Tennessee's first four games in 2016, they have come back from three double-digit deficits on their way to a 4-0 start. Saturday's 21-0 hole, along with the 24-3 deficit against Georgia in 2015, are the biggest the Vols have dug out of since Monday Night Football in 2005 in Baton Rouge. They need to work on their starts, but this year's Volunteers know how to come from behind.
- The passing game. Yes, it had its misses, with Josh Dobbs completing less than 50% of his passes (33% in the first half, 75% in the second). But that's nothing new. What was new was putting up 319 yards and four touchdowns through the air against a secondary that came into the game giving up 87.3 yards per game. And that's despite one of the worst cases of the drops from the receivers and tight ends in recent memory. Dobbs may've opened up the defense with his legs, but he did most of his damage with his arm.
- Young receivers stepping up. Since Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson left, Vols fans have been bemoaning the lack of production from a seemingly endless stream of highly rated wide receivers. But while the juniors and seniors were dropping everything in sight on Saturday, the young guns stepped up. Tyler Byrd and Jauan Jennings may have combined for just six catches, but every one of Tennessee's first six drives that started at the UT 45 or worse and finished in UF territory featured a catch by Byrd or Jennings. They combined for 151 yards and a touchdown, but perhaps more importantly, they provided reliable targets when it seemed like the Vols had none.
- Depth. Florida's first six drives of the second half featured -9 yards, one turnover, and no first downs. And that was against a Tennessee defense missing three of their four best players. Colton Jumper, who had done nothing but struggle when Darrin Kirkland Jr. was unable to go, made tackles. He even knocked down a pass in the end zone. Much-maligned Emmanuel Moseley broke up a fourth down pass to seal the game for the Vols. Freshman Baylen Buchanan played well. Dillon Bates and Cortez McDowell got minutes. The Vols had relied so heavily on a few players at linebacker (and to a lesser degree corner) that it was reasonable to assume that they were struggling to develop their depth at those positions. But on Saturday, that depth performed.
- The defensive line playing like they were supposed to. And why did Tennessee's depth at linebacker and corner play so well? They had help from a star-studded defensive line that played the second half like the terrifying unit they were billed to be in preseason. Tennessee's front four totally dominated the line of scrimmage, completely stifling a Florida offense that had put up 300 yards in the first half.
- Pass protection. The running game might've looked good on the stat sheet, but it really never got going consistently against the Gators. On Tennessee's first six possessions of the second half (on which they scored 21 points), the Vols put up just 34 yards on 14 carries (2.4 yards per carry). And yet Dobbs threw for 319 yards and was only sacked once. That doesn't happen--not against Florida--without the offensive line playing their best game of the season in pass protection. There is still work left to do, but Saturday was a step forward.
- Field position. Field position was one of Tennessee's biggest weapons last year, and thanks to a pair of gaffes by Antonio Callaway and solid play by the Vols special teams unit, it was as big as ever on Saturday. Tennessee forced Florida to go an average of 84 yards on their four touchdown drives. The Vols, on the other hand, had just one scoring drive of more than 65 yards and scored three touchdowns on drives of less than 55 yards. And that doesn't even include two non-garbage time drives that started in Florida territory. The Vols were living in plus territory, and it paid off.
- Time to think about Florida. The win was great, but arguably the most important game of Tennessee's season is four days away. Tennessee won't win by basking in the glow of last week's victory. If the Vols want a December date in Atlanta, they're going to need their A game in Athens.
- Dealing with the pressure. Butch Jones' Tennessee teams have been known for struggling in crunch time of big games. This week, they had their worst case of big game jitters yet, expanding those struggles to the entire first half. It worked out in the end, but the Vols don't dig themselves into a 21-0 hole without shooting themselves in the foot (most notably by dropping five passes and blowing a couple coverages). Despite the win, Tennessee is still not to be trusted in big moments.
- The pressure. On the other hand, Tennessee finally got a big win. One over a team that hadn't lost by four touchdowns the week before and wasn't named South Carolina. It's a lot easier to stay focused in big moments with the gator-sized monkey off your back.
- The red zone. Finishing drives had doomed Tennessee against Florida two years in a row, with the Gators scoring five touchdowns on five red zone possessions in 2014 and 2015. Now? Their record has moved to a stunning 9/9, as the Gators were perfect in the red zone for a third straight season. [Seriously. The Gators were 114th nationally in finishing drives last season and 74th the year before, but they've now scored touchdowns on their last nine consecutive red zone possessions against Tennessee. No joke. My only explanation: that's what happens when you're in the other team's head.] The Vols, on the other hand? Let's just say that it's a good thing that Tennessee scored four touchdowns from 20+ yards away. The Vols took snaps from inside the Florida 20 on four possessions (not including taking a knee at the end of the game), and they scored just 10 points on those four possessions, an abysmal 2.5 points per possession. Despite taking steps forward in pass protection, Tennessee's offensive line was at a disadvantage against the Gators defensive front, and it showed when the field got shorter.
- Playing your best with nothing to lose. 2016 Florida joins 2015 Georgia and 2014 South Carolina as games where Tennessee roared to life after everybody had counted them out. We talked in the downward trends about how the Vols need to get better at playing under pressure (and how winning this game may help with that), but they have done some amazing things (let's throw in a couple meaningless bowl games for good measure) over the last three years when they played like they had nothing to lose.
- Fumble recoveries. 2/2. Apparently, this is what we do.