January 29, 2023

A step in the right direction

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At long last, Tennessee gets the hideous, scratchy primate (known as Florida moving forward) off its back for the moment. The Vols defeated Florida 38-33, for those of you spending too much time on TikTok to know.

Florida had been a source of frustration and futility for Tennessee dating back to 1976. Since that time, the Gators have owned a 26-7 record over the Volunteers, many times when the Vols had equal or better talent. This victory may not have been a signature victory for head coach Josh Heupel and his squad, but it was, perhaps, a program-building triumph. 

Had Tennessee dropped the chalupa again, an exasperated fan base would have pondered tempering its enthusiasm toward this team while asking the question, “if not now, when?” 

Sure, in 2016, when the Vols last beat Florida (it beat Georgia that same year, too), fans wondered if this could sustain, given Butch Jones flaky nature. The fans’ suspicions were right: Tennessee couldn’t. 

Somehow this year is different. Tennessee has figured out how-to win two games against ranked opponents when things weren’t going well. I’m not sure teams between 2009 and 2020 would have been able to figure that out.

Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker had a phenomenal game. He was 22-28 for 349 yards and two touchdowns while running for another 112 yards a TD. Ramel Keyton had a huge 43-yard diving catch that kept a scoring drive alive. Bru McCoy, the Southern Cal transfer, showed what an asset he can be on the edge. Running back Jabari Small competed hard and moved the pile for 92 yards on the ground.

Tennessee had a phenomenal game on offense. But so did Florida.

As often is the case, Tennessee can nake struggling teams and players look like world beaters. Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson took a blowtorch to Tennessee’s defense. For a guy who had limped to paltry passing statistics, he threw for 453 yards and two touchdowns, then ran for 62 more yards and tacked on a pair of scores. 

He looked pretty good, despite the fact that he was 22-45 passing with an interception. He also fumbled once. He gave Florida a chance late in the game.

The Vols led by 17 with seven minutes to play, but couldn’t seem to ultimately terminate the Gators, who promptly cut the lead to five and had the ball deep in Tennessee territory with :16 remaining. That’s when Tennessee’s defense forced the pick to win the game.

This was a step in the right direction. Tennessee needs to flip the script on Florida, then focus on Georgia and Alabama if it hopes to be credible and relevant in the SEC. 

There are a lot of things to fix over the next two weeks. The defense, sadly, hasn’t improved much since last year. But if Tennessee can score 40 points a game, maybe the defense can bend but not break.

Florida threw everything it had against Tennessee to account for that offensive production and Tennessee still won. I’m not sure other Tennessee teams would have been as successful. 

This was a good, program-building win for the Vols, but they can’t rest on laurels. There are too many formidable opponents out there.

If they are satisfied by this one game, then it’s going to be a long season.

Jim Steele is a correspondent for Magic Valley Publishing and the host of The Pressbox radio show, which airs 4-6 p.m Monday-Thursday on WRJB 95.9 FM in Camden.

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