On a sunny Saturday by the Tennessee River, it was possible to wonder if Georgia’s second-worst nightmare had come true. If the Tennessee Volunteers have really and truly gotten it going, that’s not good news for the Bulldogs. (The only thing worse would be if Florida again gets it going.)
Eight years have passed since Tennessee won the SEC East, 17 since it won the conference. The Vols are on their third head coach since Phillip Fulmer. There are those in Knoxville who aren’t yet sure that Butch Jones, four games into Year 4, is a keeper, and at halftime Saturday you halfway expected some booster to hop on his plane and beg Bobby Petrino to come to K-Town.
Tennessee trailed Florida, which it hadn’t beaten since 2005, by 18 points at halftime after falling behind 21-0. The Vols would score the first 35 points of the second half – all told, 38 consecutive – and win 38-28. For the moment, let’s put aside the suspicion that the Gators mightn’t be very good. For those in Big Orange Country, this felt like deliverance.
Said Jalen Reeves-Maybin, the senior linebacker: “I’ll take it back to our first recruiting class. We all said we just want to get Tennessee back to the top. I feel like today was a big stepping stone.”
Said Tyler Byrd, the freshman receiver: “It was crazy. There’s no feeling like it, to be honest. That’s why I came here — crazy fans and 102,000 strong. It was great.”
Said Jones: “I hope you guys understand the resolve and the resiliency of this football team, and the local media should understand that. We have something special here.”
The “local media” part was meant as a zinger. Many among the Tennessee press date back to the days of Johnny Majors, meaning they’ve seen good football – just not recently. Jones arrived spouting bromides and promising to rebuild this program “brick by brick,” but he failed to beat anybody of note in three seasons except Georgia last year, when the Bulldogs lost Nick Chubb on the opening snap and blew a 24-3 lead.
Jones gives the impression of an edgy android, a notion not disabused by his revelation of his team’s alleged secret sauce for Saturday’s game. Ready to be enlightened?
Said Jones: “We had to play hard, we had to play smart, we had to play fast, but the most important thing we had to do was play together. Those were our four keys to winning the football game.”
Duly instructed, his Vols apparently chose to play soft, dumb, slow and apart for 30 minutes. Tennessee committed a personal foul on the opening kickoff. It dropped five first-half passes. Handed the ball at the Florida 2, it netted one yard and zero points. Joshua Dobbs, the senior quarterback from Alpharetta, threw a red-zone interception. The defense yielded 300 yards to an opponent missing its No. 1 quarterback. This was awful stuff.
The second half, however, was glorious. If you’ve recently picked the Vols to win the East – I have, twice – this was everything you expected to see. Dobbs completed 9 of 12 second-half passes for 235 yards and four touchdowns against a team that led the SEC in pass defense. The Tennessee offensive line, which has received as much local heat as Georgia’s O-line, began to push Florida backward.
Tennessee gained 336 yards in the final two quarters, more than it had in full games against Appalachian State and Virginia Tech. The Vol defense held the Gators without a first down until their seventh possession of the half, at which point the Vols led 38-21. From soft and dumb to sleek and dominant — how’d that happen?
It was a splendid half at a needed moment, but as Tennessee prepares to head for Sanford Stadium we have to ask: Was it a blip? If it wasn’t, then Georgia and all the SEC East have cause to tremble. If it was, forget I said anything.