By Jim Steele
Like death and taxes, it seems another certitude is Tennessee’s ineptitude at Gainesville, a.k.a. The Swamp.
In case you missed it, a perceived-mediocre Florida team dominated a perceived-title-contender Tennessee 29-16 in their SEC-opener Saturday night. While Tennessee had the veteran team and seemingly much more stability than the Gators under the allegedly-beleaguered Billy Napier, Florida appeared to be the more-polished team.
And the streak of futility continues to drag on Tennessee. How does that Herman’s Hermits song go? Second verse, same as the first?
The Vols have won only three times in Gainesville since 1977. That tidbit may be a bit misleading because Tennessee didn’t play Florida on a yearly basis until 1990. Tennessee won that game 45-3, setting a tone for a replacement to the Auburn September rivalry that would end in 1991.
But the irritating thing for Vols’ fans … and players … is that Florida has won 10 straight in Gainesville. Tennessee hasn’t fared much better against the Gators at home, being candid, but that’s a nightmare for another time.
Let’s be honest: something is not right with Tennessee. The offensive swagger isn’t there. The confidence to take chances isn’t there. The fast-paced, high-scoring attack is absent. What’s changed?
We can point the finger at quarterback Joe Milton, who has taken his share of the blame for what ails Tennessee, and like a man, he has accepted responsibility. He has been a leader in that regard. But let’s dig deeper.
After careful scrutiny, Tennessee’s offensive line isn’t very good. The Vols could not run the ball with any kind of consistency against the Gators and protection broke down several times. Milton was running for his life for much of the afternoon and running backs were grinding to a halt after a pick up of a yard or two. Milton threw an ill-advised pick, but he was trying to avoid a sack … because protection broke down. Most fans would prefer he’d have eaten the ball, but that’s the heat of battle, especially when you are running for your life. Milton had good passing numbers, but not much in the way of scoring.
Mistakes and penalties are numerous. Sure, some might argue that some of the calls against Tennessee might have been bogus, but that’s the game. Suck it up and move on. Dropped passes, jumping offsides at pivotal moments and holding calls on explosive plays won’t win you many games.
Tennessee’s defense isn’t very good either. Except for Aaron Beasley, it seems the defense is lost much of the time. As many third-and-long plays the Gators completed Saturday, I might have thought John Chavis was running the defense again. Is it coordinator Tim Banks? Is D-line coach Charlie Garner overrated? Florida had much success on fourth down, too. That’s a cause for concern. If Tennessee can’t get much out of the defense, especially the back end, with a staggering offense, the Vols are naked out there.
And let’s be honest, Tennessee, over the past two years, snuck up on a lot of people. It won more games than expected in 2021 and secured 11 victories and an Orange Bowl championship last year. Some people contend that other teams have figured out Tennessee’s offense. That may be, but I think the deficient offensive line is the main culprit for Tennessee’s offensive woes. On defense, I don’t know where to begin. Perhaps the secondary?
Some of Tennessee’s defensive backs look as lost as last year’s Easter egg.
I felt confident that the Vols were in the 10-11-win ballpark this year. Now, I wonder if they can win six or seven games.
Is there time to turn things around? Yes. You don’t throw the baby out with the bath water after just three games, though the Vols weren’t impressive in those three games, despite what the propagandists told you about Virginia.
Yes, the Vols can turn it around, though the schedule also can bury the Big Orange this year. It was alarming to see head coach Josh Heupel’s reaction to this adversity Saturday. We’ll find out if he can restore composure to the Big Orange camp. Sure it’s just one game with nine to go, so it’s not time to hit the panic button.
But that time is nearing.
Meanwhile, let’s hope “I’m Henry the Eighth I am” doesn’t resonate in Heupel’s earbuds. Tennessee fans have heard those strains too often before.
Jim Steele is a correspondent for Magic Valley Publishing.