I don’t know if the Florida series just feels like it’s full of weirdness to us because they’ve won around three-out-of-four times we’ve faced each other since 1990 and, of course, all but one of them since 2004. I think about some of the ways we beat Kentucky over the years, games that felt like the right team winning to us but, I assume, incredibly cruel and unfortunate to them. And I hate that comparison, sharing Kentucky’s past but not their present.
But last night goes on a crowded list with the second half of ’95, first half of ’96, Alex Brown, Jabar Gaffney, fumbled snaps in the rain, Nathan Peterman, and everything that’s gone wrong in the last five years against this team. Tennessee lost a chance for its new coach to write a new chapter in this rivalry, instead taking a well-worn page from the past: Florida wins, something inexplicable happens to Tennessee.
No matter who you root for, consider the near-impossibility of Tennessee’s first 11 possessions ending without a punt or a touchdown, the two most likely outcomes of any drive. It felt a bit like the reverse Battle of Bristol: I’m quite sure Tennessee wasn’t actually 42 points better than Virginia Tech in the midst of their five fumbles that turned a 14-0 game into a 45-17 hole, but we were happy to oblige if they wanted to keep putting it on the ground. Last night Florida had three touchdown drives of less than 25 yards, and only one required more than 70 yards.
So yes, we know Florida can dominate Tennessee when the Vols turn it over six times. Did we learn anything else that could be useful going forward?
One way the Vols attempted to write a new story in this rivalry, especially after erring on the conservative side under Butch Jones, was to be incredibly aggressive:
- 1Q 4th-and-4 at FLA 38 (14-0 FLA): Incomplete
- 2Q Onside Kick (14-3 FLA): Florida recovers
- 2Q 4th-and-1 at TEN 45 (23-3 FLA): 54-yard completion, fumbled out of the end zone for a touchback
It’s interesting to note that none of these decisions directly hurt the Vols. Florida fumbled immediately following the failed fourth down, the Gators went three-and-out after the onside kick (but did pin the Vols deep for a safety), and obviously the fumble through the end zone was the equivalent of a punt doing the same. Tennessee didn’t lose because they were overly aggressive, but they failed to make those aggressive choices count.
What did those decisions tell us about Jeremy Pruitt? Time will tell if that was big-game aggressiveness or something we can expect from him every week. But, if anything can be refreshing in a six-turnover loss, that was. His decision to go for two and try another onside kick when the Vols cut it to 19 with five minutes to go falls in line here too, and I thought this…
Pruitt said he called goal line defense on the final long TD run. Wanted to give his team a chance to try and win. “We knew if they broke the line, they were going to score. … What’s the difference in 40 and 47?”
— David Ubben (@davidubben) September 23, 2018
…was straight out of Madden. We’ll always be quick to praise the new guy for not being what the guy who got fired was. But I like having a coach who’d rather try every last thing to win and lose by 26 than worry about how that might make him look and settle for losing by 19.
Just Because It’s Not Shotgun…
Much the same as the West Virginia game, the Vols put themselves in bad situations on third down for much of the first quarter. For the second week in a row, Tennessee is ranked 129th nationally in yards per carry in the first quarter (via Sports Source Analytics).
But once the Vols started getting their act together on first and second down, they still couldn’t get it done on third-and-short. Tennessee had to settle for a 32-yard field goal that cut it to 14-3 when Ty Chandler was stuffed on 3rd-and-1. Two cracks at coming off their own two yard line ended in a safety. The long pass to Austin Pope happened because Madre London was denied on 3rd-and-1. And on Tennessee’s first touchdown drive, the Vols had 1st-and-goal at the 4 and went no gain, incomplete, pass interference, one yard, no gain, and finally a one yard touchdown on 3rd-and-goal at the one.
I like seeing the Vols in the I-formation instead of shotgun too, but it hasn’t made us much more fruitful in short yardage. If Tennessee can’t line up and get a yard against the Gators, they almost certainly won’t the next three times out. Maybe this particular unit can have more success in November, maybe not. But we simply do not block well enough to impose our will on third-and-short.
The game and the opportunity in this rivalry were lost. But I think much of what we’re also feeling comes from who Tennessee plays next.
It’s just awfully tough to imagine Tennessee beating Georgia, Auburn, or Alabama (plus a bye week). Some will throw South Carolina in Columbia in there too. If that’s the case, you’re 2-6 with Charlotte and the usual SEC East November left, needing to win all four to get bowl eligible. Derek Dooley’s Vols did it in his first season, sparked by the switch to Tyler Bray. But they did not face anything as good as the 2018 versions of Kentucky, Missouri, and Vanderbilt appear to be. The Cats, in particular, are at this point almost the equal of Auburn in S&P+.
I’m an optimist by trade and design, and I’ll have us at around 4.25 wins when our weekly win total calculator comes out tomorrow. That’s depressing. We knew it would be more about progress than results this year, but I know we hoped that would be the difference between 5-7 and 6-6. Instead, it’s trying to find anything positive from a six turnover performance against our most relevant rival while our secondary rivals look like the very best versions of themselves. This is bad, it might be very bad, and it might be somewhere between a long and very long time before we’re something more.
This is, in some ways, both the challenge and the opportunity now before Jeremy Pruitt. Expectations are lower than ever. Can he keep his team together over the next few weeks? Can they still be better, regardless of result, in November than they are in September? Can he rally these guys around the idea that, nevermind Georgia or Alabama, nobody believes they can win six games?
The long-term answer is in recruiting, where the Vols are currently fine despite a bad on-field impression on a lot of high-level prospects last night. Pruitt’s boss, who knows both the value of recruiting at Tennessee and the pain of impossible things happening to you against the Gators, can be helpful in reminding us all to keep pulling in the same direction even if we’re not as strong as we thought we were at first.
Objectively, the Vols are 59th in S&P+ right now. Last year they finished 107th. That metric currently projects the Vols to lose by 27, 18, and 27 in their next three games. Like it or not, progress is going to feel like the pursuit of moral victories for a minute here. But last year Quinten Dormady lost to Georgia by 41 and Jarrett Guarantano to Alabama by 38, both averaging less than three yards per play.
There’s only one way to feel after losing to Florida like that, and we know it well. There are few warm fuzzies available over the next few weeks, and we knew that coming in. So it may not be a lot of fun for now. But it doesn’t mean the Vols haven’t made baby steps of progress already. And it doesn’t mean there isn’t progress available every week, if Pruitt can keep this team together and moving forward. I’m sure this wasn’t the start he envisioned, especially the way the game went last night. We lost an opportunity. What will we find in the next few weeks?