The Swamp has proven to be the best of times for Florida and the worst of times for Tennessee.
With apologies to Charles Dickens, this SEC battle was a tale of two teams.
One was surprisingly efficient. The other a top 10 imposter.
The Florida Gators outplayed, outcoached and outexecuted a Tennessee team that didn’t look well prepared on offense or defense, made numerous critical mistakes and got burned by several awful calls by an inept officiating crew that cost UT a chance to get back in the game.
The result was a 10th consecutive Florida win over touchdown-favorite Tennessee in the Swamp, 29-16.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
Tennessee was thought to have the better players and the better coach.
It didn’t turn out that way. The Vols burned timeouts on offense, had multiple illegal procedure penalties, stupidly jumped offsides when Florida clearly wasn’t going for it on fourth down late in the game, couldn’t get off the field on third down and tackled poorly.
It also, for the second game in a row, got a subpar performance from quarterback Joe Milton, who completed 20 of 34 passes for 287 yards and two touchdowns but threw his first interception in 249 passes and didn’t make plays in the clutch to sustain drives.
Tennessee, which was averaging 257.5 rush yards per game, was held to 101 yards on 30 carries as Florida dominated time of possession. At one point in the first half, Florida had run 31 plays to UT’s 11.
Tennessee’s run defense was exploited by a Gator team that was held to 13 rushing yards against Utah. Trevor Etienne scorched UT for 172 yards on 23 carries, including a 62-yard touchdown run. Many of his yards came when the offensive line pulled and trapped UT. Florida finished with 183 yards on the ground against a poor tackling UT unit.
Florida scored on four consecutive possessions to take a 26-7 halftime lead.
“Disappointing first half, how we played, how we competed,’’ said Vols coach Josh Heupel, whose team did not look well prepared.
Tennessee showed some fight in the second half, driving 14 plays to kick a field goal early in the third period, but using two timeouts due to poor clock management.
Then, when UT had a chance to make a run, terrible officiating cost the Vols a chance to put heat on the Gators.
First, the officials stopped UT from snapping the ball quickly after a ref kicked the ball when putting it back in play. UT’s center placed the ball at the correct spot, but another official ran in and stopped play to reset the ball. That allowed Florida to make two substitutions even though UT didn’t sub. That is procedure error.
Florida, once properly aligned, stuffed the Vols on fourth and one.
On UT’s next possession, the Vols had a 12-yard gain to the Florida 38, but tight end McCallan Castles was called for a blindside block that former SEC official and TV analyst Bill Lemonnier said was a bad call.
UT then failed on a fourth-and-6.
After UT cut the lead to 13 points early in the fourth quarter, a potential scoring drive was stalled when officials missed an obvious pass interference on an end zone pass as the Gator defender grabbed and pulled the jersey of Ramel Keyton.
UT then failed again on fourth down with 2:37 left, effectively ending the game.
Florida was able to chew up extra minutes on the clock late in the game when Vols defensive tackle Kurott Garland inexplicably jumped offsides on a fourth-and-2 from the Florida 33 when the Gators were simply trying to draw UT offsides.
Then, at the end of the game, Heupel called a senseless timeout that led to a scuffle.
With 9 seconds left and Florida facing fourth down, Heupel called a timeout.
When Florida quarterback Graham Mertz ran around for a few seconds and took a knee, UT defensive tackle Omari Thomas hit Mertz late, leading to some shoving, pushing and punches thrown. The game was called with four seconds left.
He should have known when to fold ‘em. There was nothing to be gained by calling a timeout with 9 seconds left – down by 13.
It was just another UT mistake on a night when the Vols once again succumbed to the Gators in The Swamp.