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Mullen: Tennessee a ‘much-improved team’ despite loss to Florida

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel Calvin Mattheis/News Sentinel via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Thing looked promising in the first half for Tennessee in The Swamp, but in the end, the Volunteers just couldn’t keep pace with the No. 11 Florida Gators. Two big plays from Tiyon Evans and JaVonta Payton actually had the Vols ahead 14-10 in the early stages, but that’s where the fun ended for Tennessee.

The Gators clamped down from there, making adjustments and holding Tennessee scoreless for the rest of the game. However, opportunities were certainly there for the Vols — they just didn’t execute, continuing an early trend we’ve seen with this team.

“I mean, coming into the game, I mean, that was a different-looking team than I saw last year, to be honest with you,” Florida head coach Dan Mullen told reporters after the game. “How they played, the intensity, the toughness, the physicalness they played with, you know, I give them some credit. I think they’re a much-improved football team.”

You can say what you want, but this wasn’t the same run of the mill thumping from Florida. Tennessee battled through three quarters, coming up with a few big plays to stay alive. Little stuff like Alontae Taylor forcing a fumble just before halftime to keep it a 17-14 game — Tennessee had their shot, but a massive, wide-open drop on fourth down by Jimmy Calloway seemed to be the final nail in the coffin. If that play is made, we’ve got a ballgame heading into the final moments of the third quarter.

Tennessee showed up and performed, once again showing us tangible evidence that Josh Heupel’s offensive system works. The execution, on the other hand, is severely lacking. That’s something that hopefully comes with time, but it’s a frustrating process to watch right now.

“I think you look at them as a physical group, physical on both sides of the ball,” Mullen said. “Some good athletes. Their quarterback, I thought, played really well today — hit some shots, creating big plays. They’re an explosive type of offense, and you can see that the improvements they’ve made in one year and what Coach Heupel’s doing with them in how those guys play.”

A lack of simple execution took us from a potential tie game in the third quarter, to a ten point deficit. It felt all too familiar to the Pittsburgh game, where Tennessee realistically could have been up 28-0 in the first quarter. The missed opportunities added up, and the Gators poured it on.

So what now? That’s an easy question to answer. The players have to come on. Chemistry, all 11 playing as one, however you want to put it — this offense has some pieces, they’re just not clicking right now with consistency. Ten more penalties as a team certainly didn’t help the cause. Eventually, Tennessee has to clean up what’s been a really messy start to the 2021 season.

The rushing attack showed some promise as Tennessee offensive line returned to full strength. We saw more flashes out of the passing game. But when it matter the most, things just didn’t come together.

The hope is that these are just some growing pains in a dramatically new offensive system. The fight and effort are certainly there, though, which is half the battle. The buy-in to this staff seems to be there, which was echoed by Mullen after the game.

If Calloway catches that drag route in the third quarter — well, we’ll never know.

The opportunities to at least hang around were there, but the lack of execution is maddening.