A 24 point loss on the scoreboard doesn’t tell the entire story — not even close. In fact, it was just the beginning of a couple of seasons, two that went in opposite directions.
Josh Heupel’s year one Volunteers lost 38-14 to bitter rival Florida in Gainesville last season, a game that got out of hand late. Tennessee was down 17-14 and threatening to tie or even take the lead when disaster struck. A simple drop on a drag route by Jimmy Calloway on fourth down sent Tennessee into a tailspin, and the Gators poured it on from there.
“I just think in late third quarter there’s some things we did, self-inflicted wounds, that changed the way that game was played in the fourth quarter,” Heupel said last week at SEC Media Days. “As a program, a young program, you have an opportunity to learn from it, grow, and push forward and really climb, or it’s something that can be devastating. It’s one of the moments inside our staff and program that changed the trajectory of the program.”
It was a moment where that year one team could have collapsed, but they did the exact opposite. Tennessee bounced back and picked up back to back blowout wins over Missouri and South Carolina, jolting their season back on track after a meltdown in The Swamp.
That was a really good sign for Tennessee fans, one that signaled a new culture in Knoxville.
“Sat in the team meeting room, were able to dissect and show them not the entire game, but the key moments of things that we controlled that had nothing to do with anybody that was wearing a different colored jersey that impacted the game and the way it was played,” Heupel said of the Florida game. “Through that I think they gained confidence in who they were, what we were doing. We were able to compete and grow throughout the course of the season.”
Tennessee, of course, rebounded to find seven wins on the season. That’s something that most people really didn’t see happening in 2021. The Volunteers took Alabama into the fourth quarter, and nearly (probably should have) knocked off Ole Miss in Neyland Stadium.
Nearly one year later, Heupel reflected on that film study session following the Florida loss as a turning point for his program. On September 24th in Knoxville, Tennessee has a chance to bring it full circle and finally beat Florida once again. Most would agree — it’s the single most important spot on the schedule.