On Saturday afternoon, the Tennessee Volunteers met the Florida Gators for another rivalry showdown — only, it often feels a lot less like a rivalry, given the Gators’ propensity to knock off the Vols, and oftentimes with ease, might I add. Nonetheless, I made the hour-and-a-half trek to Knoxville to watch these teams meet, cold weather be damned.
A couple weeks ago, I reserved and purchased my student ticket to the game, and signaled my return to Neyland Stadium for the first time since I was in eighth grade. During that season, I attended two games: One was a 34-23 win over the Ohio University Bobcats, a margin of defeat that, though close, is still a bit deceptive. Tennessee was only winning 24-17 at halftime; and two, a 26-22 loss at the hands of the Auburn Tigers, a night game that was nationally televised on ESPN.
Saturday was also my first time back on campus since the Spring, right before everything shut down. So, I found my usual (free) parking space, which I won’t disclose in the interest of keeping the area from becoming saturated, and started towards Neyland.
While I was walking, there was a bit of excitement in the air. Small gatherings were going on in various locations throughout my journey, with several of them blaring music — though I can’t remember the exact song, it was something in the spirit of Aerosmith.
I spotted the occasional Florida fan, something that the fellas on the Vol Radio Network said made them roll their eyes, though they didn’t use that exact verbiage. Everybody seemed to be in good spirits. Florida fans, presumably, assumed a win was coming their way (they were right), while Tennessee fans knew what was likely coming down the line, but remained upbeat and seemingly optimistic, nonetheless.
As I crossed in front of the Bailey Educational Complex, I must’ve had a solemn and serious look on my face, as I was stopped by three older gentlemen. They all bombarded me with shouts of, “Go Vols!” to which I attempted to participate as jovially as possible. It was hard to muster excitement, however. The first reason being I’m not really the “rah-rah” type; but the second reason is because there didn’t seem to be much reason for excitement.
Still, I pressed on towards Gate 4 and, after making entry, scoped out a location which would give me quick exit access, as well as help me to responsibly distance myself from other patrons. Once inside, as the time ticked down and as kickoff drew nearer, it didn’t have the feeling of a Tennessee and Florida game — at least not as I’d come to imagine it. I suppose there are several reasons for that, not least of which was because Tennessee hasn’t been markedly competitive since the first half of the Georgia game. But it was also because of the makeup of the crowd.
We all know that the University of Tennessee is following guidelines for safely putting on sporting events in the midst of the pandemic. For that reason, everyone was largely spread out, save for the student section, which mostly didn’t seem to mind impending contraction and subsequent spreading of the virus. Furthermore, we all wore our masks fairly diligently. While many folks opted to draw theirs down while at their seats, they would slide them back up whenever the time came to descend (or ascend) upon the concourse.
ESPN says that the stadium was filled to 22 percent capacity. As I looked around, it felt a bit strange. The stands looked like they would under normal conditions for a team with a 2-5 record, but I knew the interest in this game was, of course, greater than that. Despite the limited in-person attendance, Tennessee gave fans a reason to remain interested in the first half.
At halftime, it was a 17-7 game and there was hope, though I suspect many knew it was a long shot, that the Volunteers could stage a second half comeback and win a game. Had Harrison Bailey commanded a comeback against the number six team in the nation — in a rivalry game, no less — that certainly would’ve put any Jarrett Guarantano talk to bed; it would also muddle the conversation surrounding head coach Jeremy Pruitt and whether or not his tenure at Tennessee is winding down. Despite that lingering opportunity, Florida managed to slowly and steadily keep its foot on Tennessee’s neck.
Heisman hopeful Kyle Trask ended up with 433 yards and four touchdowns, and a steady air attack netted both Kyle Pitts and Kadarius Toney over 100 yards each. Trevon Grimes had two touchdowns. On the Tennessee side, JT Shrout, playing mostly in the fourth quarter, ended up as the passing leader, completing 12-of-14 passes for 121 yards. Harrison Bailey, who, when his name was called as the starting quarterback pregame, ignited eruptions of cheers from the crowd, went 14-of-21 for 111 yards. Both quarterbacks had one touchdown pass. Shrout’s QBR was 93.4; Bailey’s was 44.8. The questions at quarterback appear to still linger even when it isn’t Guarantano leading the offense.
But at the end of the day, Florida still left with the win — an outcome we all expected. In the end, Shrout’s two drives in the fourth quarter ultimately made the score respectable, with the game concluding at 31-19. While I was driving in, I heard on the radio that it would be a win in and of itself it the Vols could hold the Gators under 30 points. They didn’t quite get there but it was very close. Call it a half-win?
Finally, Florida came in with a surprisingly low -17.5 line, so if you took Tennessee, then good on you. Tennessee will now look to close up its season on the road at Vanderbilt before finishing at home against Texas A&M. After what I saw against Florida, the Vols should pick up a win at Vandy before suffering a close loss to the Aggies. That’s as optimistic as I’m willing to get.