It wasn't the epic beat down that all the experts were predicting. There was no domination. Instead of calling timeouts at the end, Urban Meyer was shaking Tennessee players' hands after it was over to tell them good game.
This Florida team didn't look like the one from the second half of last season that steamrolled everything in its path. It looked like the one from the first half of last year that played things conservatively and won by much more modest margins. In some ways it looked frighteningly like Meyer's 2005 team, which was the worst of his tenure. Here's a look at what happened on Saturday and what the champs can do to get their groove back.
They got beat up front.
The Florida offensive line is still not set and ready, and it really showed. Tennessee has an excellent defensive line, and any time Tim Tebow dropped back to throw something deeper than 10 yards, the pocket collapsed around him. The Florida coaches have a philosophy that anyone who earns playing time should get it, even the offensive line. As a result there were guys rotating in and out throughout, which didn't help anything. They need to pick their best five and go with it.
On the other side, the banged up Tennessee line did a good job of patching things together and playing well. The Florida defensive line was held back by Jermaine Cunningham having the flu and Brandon Spikes, who often lines up as a defensive end, having tendinitis in his Achilles.
Spikes' injury also caused him to be conspicuously absent in supporting the line against the run during his normal linebacking duties. It is no coincidence that Spikes missed most of the second half, and it is the second half when the defense began playing a lot better. A full speed backup, in this case Dustin Doe, was better than the half speed Spikes. With all the depth that the team has, it's a small wonder that Cunningham and Spikes played at all.
Wide receiver is at critical condition.
Senior Carl Moore is out with a back injury. Freshman five star recruit Andre Debose is out for the season with a hamstring injury. Deonte Thompson missed the game with a hamstring pull. Riley Cooper pinched a nerve on the first series of the game. Even tight end Aaron Hernandez had the flu.
Of the team's six top pass catching targets, three missed the game and only one, David Nelson, was fully healthy. That's not an excuse, that's an explanation. I can't name many teams that could put together a full passing attack with that kind of attrition among the receiving ranks. With Thompson out and Cooper slowed, Florida was without a deep passing threat. With the Tennessee line winning up front on longer passing plays to boot, the vertical passing game never had a shot.
But just as important as the guys who didn't play because of injury were the guys who didn't play and were healthy: Omarius Hines, Frankie Hammond, and T.J. Lawrence. These three redshirt freshmen are along with Debose the future of the position in Gainesville, and apparently none practiced well enough to see the field. This was especially surprising in the case of Hines, who got meaningful snaps against Troy and looked good in them.
Too much conservatism.
Or, the right amount if you're only concerned with winning and not style points.
Years from now, we will all probably look back at the 2007 season and wonder what exactly it was that caused Urban Meyer to break from his conservative streak so early in the season. In every other year, now including this one thanks to Saturday, he comes out at the beginning of seasons and plays things close to the vest.
In past years, he explained the flood of runs up the middle as trials to see how tough his team was. This week it was a reaction to Tennessee's demeanor:
"I didn't feel like they were going after the win," Meyer said. "They wanted to shorten the game. I think that was the plan. There are 10 minutes to go and they're not in a no-huddle. It's 23-6 and no urgency (on UT's part).
"The way we lose a game there is throw an interception. Why put yourself in that position. Let's find a way to win the game. We're not trying to impress the pollsters, we're trying to win the game. A lot of it had to do with the way they were playing. It made our life a little easier."
You could also see it in all the Tebow runs. When Meyer gets unsettled, as his nervous tick of running his hands through his hair betrayed plenty of times on Saturday, he leans on the players he trusts most, and he trusts no one more than Tebow. The quarterback had 24 carries, four more than the rest of the team combined. Jeff Demps, though slowed by a 101 degree fever, averaged 7.8 yards per carry, Chris Rainey averaged 7.1, and Emmanuel Moody was the best of them with 11 yards a carry. But remember the thing about trust? Moody is the least trusted of the three and only got three carries on the game.
I don't want to sell Tennessee's defense short here, which was fantastic and outplayed Florida's offense on many occasions. Monte Kiffin was in the team's heads all week in practice, and he called a very good game. He moved Eric Berry all over the place and nearly every time had his prized safety in position to make a play. However, ol' Monte got some help from the other side too.
Obviously, the schedule sets up nicely for the Gators over the next couple weeks. The road game at Kentucky could end up a very dangerous contest if the Wildcats learn to get out of their own way by Saturday. However, Florida could probably gut it out in the same way they did against the Vols if need be, allowing the talent gap between the teams to be the difference. After that, it's a bye week before the road trip to LSU.
Now that Florida has had its first big test of the season, it's time to evaluate what needs to happen to stay on track to accomplish its goals.
Get healthy, or at least play the healthy guys.
It floors me that the coaches seem to trust the unproven depth on the offensive line, as evidenced by the constant rotation, but not the experienced depth on the defense, as evidenced by them playing guys like Cunningham and Spikes who were nowhere near 100% ready to go.
If Spikes is hurt, use fellow leader Ryan Stamper and play talented guys like Doe and Brandon Hicks. If Cunningham is struggling with the flu, lean on Justin Trattou, Carlos Dunlap, and some of the young guys waiting to break out like William Green to pick up the slack. If Demps has a fever, ride Rainey and Moody. Only the MASH unit at receiver has no real proven second options, but would it hurt to put Hines or Hammond out there just to see what they can do? Probably not.
Take care of the ball.
The Gators have now lost five turnovers in the past two weeks. The fumbles against Troy were sort of understandable because of the rain, but not everyone fumbles six times during a storm. Eric Berry's interception was a magnificent play, but Tebow's fumble late against UT came from him trying too hard and putting the ball where a defender could strip it instead of just taking a nice gain and being happy.
At some point, someone is really going to make them pay for their indiscretions as Ole Miss did a year ago. Maybe it's Kentucky this weekend with the newly dangerous Mike Hartline to Randall Cobb connection. It could be LSU in a couple weeks, or Ryan Mallett with his cannon arm. No team wins championships of any kind turning it over this much.
Try to block out the hype.
In last year's revenge game for Florida, Brandon Spikes leveled Knowshon Moreno on the first Georgia drive of the game. It seemed to loosen the team up. No such play did the same in this year's revenge game, and the team looked tight for most of it.
That big play at the beginning isn't going to be there most weeks. The external pressure is only going to intensify thanks to voters (UF is now the unanimous No. 1 in the Coaches' Poll) and other powers (like Oklahoma and USC) falling away.
While the game against Tennessee was never in serious doubt for a lot of reasons, there are better teams looming ahead. If the pressure contributed any to the less-than-championship caliber performance over the weekend, a loss or two will be waiting for them ahead.
The good news is that had the tackling on defense been better, Tennessee would have had about 50-75 fewer yards. For all the struggles, the defense was still very, very good and will probably continue to be. Since defense wins championships, that's going to be the most important thing going forward.