Tennessee's win over Florida on Saturday came in a game that was rich in narrative. The Volunteers were looking for a breakthrough over a team they hadn't beaten in 11 years while also seeking a way to upgrade an offense that had struggled through three weeks of the season. The Gators came in a supremely confident team, trash talk and all, with a highly rated defense and the good side of the streak on their side.
Those narratives were the mold that formed the postgame opinion of how things went. For two quarters, Tennessee's offense was the same one we saw struggle against Appalachian State and Ohio. Florida's defense was the stifling unit it had been so far in 2016. And then after the half, the Vols got some momentum and used it to run away with the game.
Just after watching the game live on Saturday, that story seemed correct. Upon reviewing postgame comments from players and coaches, that's an accurate representation of what the game felt like at the time.
Having watched the game a second time, clear of the narratives and knowing the end result, I can tell you that this narrative doesn't actually represent what happened on the field. That's not to take anything away from the emotions of the day, or to suggest that they were wrong or anything. However, if you want to take anything away from this game and apply it to looking forward through the rest of the season, you have to put the narratives and feelings aside and look at what truly happened.
Let's start with the idea that Florida's defense dominated the first half, but Tennessee's offense made adjustments and dominated the second half. That's just plain wrong.
As far as I can tell, Tennessee's offense didn't make any adjustments after the break except to run Joshua Dobbs a little more. Otherwise, they were largely doing the same thing as in the first half.
The difference is that the Volunteers dropped five passes in the first half. All five were bad drops, too. Ethan Wolf dropped a third down pass that would've been very close to a first down on UT's first drive. Antonio Callaway gifted the Vols the ball by dropping the ensuing punt at Florida's 2-yard-line, but two plays later Jason Croom dropped a touchdown pass. UT would come up empty on 3rd and 4th down afterwards. Wolf dropped a 15-20 yard gainer that would've given the team a first down inside the Gators' 30 two drives later, leading to another punt. On the next drive, Josh Malone dropped a 20-yard pass. Finally, Alvin Kamara dropped a pass—to be fair to Kamara, a pass that was a bit underthrown—that could've given the Vols a first down inside the Florida 5-yard line.
Tennessee's first half success rate was 40%, and that rises to 45.7% if you leave out the drops. The Vols' second half success rate was 46.8%. The Vols had only one three-and-out before the half; they had two after the half (one coming late as they were only trying to run clock).
In other words, Florida never actually did find a way to stop Tennessee's offense. Tennessee kept stopping itself with bad pass drops. No Volunteer dropped a pass in the second half, and in fact, Wolf snagged a touchdown pass with his fingertips and Jauan Jennings juggled his 67-yard touchdown catch before securing it. Those easily could've been drops just like in the first half, but they were catches in the second half.
Continuing on, something I was specifically looking for in the rewatch was what Tennessee did to disrupt the Gators' offense in the second half. UF's offensive line had a great first half, keeping Austin Appleby clean and opening up some holes.
The answer was almost disappointing in its simplicity. In the first half, Bob Shoop tried to have his defensive ends Derek Barnett and Corey Vereen do a little of everything. He even had Barnett dropping back into pass coverage a few times.
In the second half, Shoop had them mostly just attack the backfield. That's pretty much it. They made the Florida offensive line look like a unit that starts three underclassmen, including a true freshman at right tackle. That true freshman, Jawaan Taylor, had been looking good to date, but the senior Vereen made him look like a freshman. Barnett was too fast for LT David Sharpe to handle consistently, and Barnett made the decision to try to block him with TE C'yontai Lewis look as silly as it is when it happened.
Florida didn't help itself much after the half, to be sure. Jim McElwain said after the game that they had a good second half game plan but failed to execute, and I can sort of see where he's coming from. On the first drive after the break, UF got to a 3rd-and-1 but Tennessee's front stuffed Jordan Scarlett to force a punt. The team got behind the chains on the second drive right away when Jordan Cronkrite dropped a four or five-yard pass.
The game plan looked very familiar to me, though. It brought back memories of the maddening Steve Addazio Florida offense from 2009-10 in a specific way.
McElwain noted during his halftime interview that field position was an issue. That was true for the whole game, and partly it was self-inflicted on UF's part thanks to Callaway having his worst day as a punt returner with a fumble and a some questionable fair catch decisions. The Gators had an average starting field position of their own 17, while Tennessee's was its own 43.
On Saturday it felt like McElwain was trying to run out the clock for an entire half, but I think it was more Addazio disease. Addazio loved to talk about "staying on schedule"—meaning not getting caught in 2nd or 3rd-and-long— as the main goal of his offense. That's not a bad sentiment, as avoiding long distances is a good thing. Staying on schedule is basically what success rate measures, after all.
However, focusing entirely on staying on schedule is a bad move. It means the offense will try to go for safe yardage to the exclusion of more aggressive plays. Once a defense realizes that the offense isn't going for lower percentage shots down the field, it can load up the box and prevent the staying-on-schedule plays from actually keeping a team on schedule.
I think that's what happened with Florida in the second half. Its first drive started at its own 10-yard-line, and Doug Nussmeier went with three consecutive runs. The third drive began at the UF 13-yard line, and the team broke out the Ron Zook Special of run-run-pass-punt (and the pass was a sack to boot). I think Florida was just trying to get a few yards to get out of the field position hole, except that the modest ambitions of these plays allowed Shoop's guys to tee off.
Florida was aware that pressure was becoming a problem. It tried to use some screens to break the pressure as it did in the first half, most notably on Cronkrite's touchdown catch. It didn't work, however, because A) screens don't do a whole lot to combat pressure when the pressure is largely a result of defensive ends beating offensive tackles one-on-one, and B) not a soul in the stadium thought the Gators were going to pass it more than about five yards past the line of scrimmage during the third quarter.
This game was a good display of the difference between a coach in Year 4 of a major rebuild like Butch Jones is and a coach in Year 2 of a major rebuild like McElwain is. Jones (finally) has a veteran team with a multi-year starting quarterback. A lot of his guys have been playing together for a while.
McElwain inherited a good defense but has had to turn over nearly the entire offensive roster. All four of his 2016 quarterbacks weren't around in the Will Muschamp era, and three of them weren't on the roster last year. None of the four primary running backs played for Muschamp. Only two of the ten players who caught a pass for Florida on Saturday also caught one for Muschamp. Four of the six offensive linemen who have played significant snaps in 2016—wait for it—never played for Muschamp.
Florida's offense had trouble in Knoxville getting plays in and off before the play clock expired, and the relative inexperience of everyone probably had something to do with it. Crowd noise seemed to bother Appleby in the second half as well, presumably because it was new to him as Big Ten fans seldom had to get loud when Purdue was visiting.
If this was the real UT offense, and I mean that in contrast to the "don't give anything away and don't get Dobbs hurt" schemes from the first three weeks, then Tennessee has as high of a ceiling as many people thought in the preseason. As long as the Vols can keep their cans of stickum and slickum straight, they'll go no worse than 10-2.
Florida is probably okay coming out of this one, as there just aren't many quarterbacks on the schedule who can do what Dobbs did to them. Only Deondre Francois at the end has something approaching that combination of skills. However, it's a problem that Duke Dawson keeps getting lost in coverage, as the secondary has basically no depth and no one to beat him out. Maybe Drew Lock, Jacob Eason, and Austin Allen can't make UF look bad with their feet, but they certainly can pick on Dawson like Dobbs did. The offense showed a level of resiliency with Luke Del Rio out—at one point late in the first half, I was wondering if people would try to make a quarterback controversy out of Appleby's four explosive pass plays—but the offensive line (again) and conservative play calling worked against it.
Tennessee won this game by ten points, but it could've won it by 30 had it not dropped so many passes or been less attacking on defense before the break. The Vols needed a large comeback to win, but it's almost entirely their own fault that they were in that hole to begin with. That, I think, is the real story from this game.