BY JIM STEELE
While Florida continued its mastery of Tennessee Saturday night, I’m really not quite sure college football fans expected that kind of performance out of the ravaged Tennessee Vols.
Yes, the final score is probably what most in the Big Orange fold are used to seeing, the Gators prevailed 38-14, but the Vols had Florida on its heels for much of the first three quarters.
I said the Vols wouldn’t be able to run the ball against the Gators. They had 178 total rushing yards. I said the Vols wouldn’t win the turnover battle. UT was plus-one in takeaways. I said the Vols couldn’t hit the deep pass. Hendon Hooker hit Velus Jones Jr. for a 77-yard bomb.
Boy, was I mistaken.
Tennessee had a chance to score right before the half after forcing a Florida fumble. The Vols missed a field goal at the halftime horn, but prevented a touchdown with the turnover. That was at least something.
Often, it’s funny how the fortunes of a ballgame hinge on one pivotal play. In the third quarter, the Vols were rolling. They’d just converted a key third-down play and were faced with a fourth-and-five at about the 35. Hooker had Jimmy Calloway wide open. Calloway certainly would have had the first down if he caught it and sat down right there. Some believe he had an express lane to the end zone. We’ll never know.
He dropped the pass.
If he catches it and scores, then maybe the specter of two SEC losses creeps into Florida’s mind and it starts playing not to lose instead of playing to win. Who knows what could have happened?
Let the debate rage ad infinitum (and ad nauseam) about Hooker, Joe Milton and Harrison Bailey. All have room to improve. Hooker and Milton have shown flashes of brilliance. But receivers have dropped too many passes and, at times, given up on routes or just not been singing from the same hymnal as the quarterback, whomever he may be.
That dropped pass is a tempest in a teapot compared to the real problems facing this program. This team needs more players. The Vols have some talent on the field, but just not enough to compete with deeper teams … like Florida. Bring in about a dozen more talented players and this may have been a different game.
Let the debate rage about head coach Josh Heupel and whether or not he can build a championship-caliber team. Time will tell, but his offense can move the ball. For the third time in four weeks, the Vols left a lot of points on the field. Tennessee probably should have scored 10-to-14 more points Saturday night and that would have made the final tally more palatable. These Vols still had 412 total yards at the Swamp.
I didn’t see that coming.
Look, this team still has a lot of issues to settle and has a long, long way to go, but it may not have as far to travel as we think. I do know this: Florida couldn’t just throw its chinstraps on the field like in years past.
Saturday night, the Vols made the Gators earn it and that just might be the first positive step in the process.
Editor’s note: Jim Steele is a correspondent for Magic Valley Publishing and the host of The Pressbox, which airs 4-6 p.m., Monday-Thursday on WRJB, 95.9 FM, Camden.