KNOXVILLE — A 6 p.m. Tennessee kickoff Saturday was apparently more appropriate than the Volunteers’ No. 23 ranking.
They weren’t ready for prime time.
Florida piled up 379 of its 555 yards in the second half and coasted to a 37-20 after breaking open a tight game and stunning a sold-out Neyland Stadium crowd. It was the 18th-ranked Gators’ eighth straight win in the series.
It seemed like the night Tennessee would turn the corner under third-year coach Derek Dooley.
ESPN’s College GameDay was on hand and Florida, a 3-point underdog, was playing on the road with the less experienced quarterback.
Better yet, the UT brass finalized a decision Saturday morning to retire former Volunteers Heisman Trophy runner-up/head coach Johnny Majors’ No. 45 jersey, and Majors was smiling when the Vols rode single-wing principles into the end zone when No. 45 linebacker A.J. Johnson’s 1-yard score gave UT a 20-13 lead with 7:33 left in the third quarter.
They’d even done an effective pooch kick with Tyler Bray in the first half that Majors smiled about while discussing it at halftime.
But the Vols momentum essentially stopped on a dime after Johnson’s score. Walk-on kicker Derrick Brodus, who was promoted ahead of Michael Palardy during the week, missed the PAT off the left upright and Florida answered with a Wildcat touchdown of its own when Trey Burton dashed 80 yards up the right sideline to tie the score some four minutes later.
Burton had also scored the game’s first touchdown — from 14 yards out — after taking a direct snap.
Senior Marsalis Teague’s attempt to get Burton out of bounds along the right sideline on the 80-yarder was sorely lacking, and it hurt Vols fans to see Justin Hunter not come up with a potential long third-down conversion catch early in the fourth quarter when UT trailed 27-20.
It was a much easier throw-and-catch than Florida had converted when sophomore quarterback Jeff Driskel threw a timing pass toward the left pylon that tight end Jordan Reed caught for a 23-yard touchdown which gave the Gators a 27-20 lead with 30 seconds left in the third quarter.
Florida had a four-play stretch that produced 155 yards.
“We had a lot of mistakes defensively,” said Dooley. “I mean, they got No. 8 (Burton) in the Wildcat, we didn’t get the check and gave up a huge play there. And then they ran a couple of zone reads and just gutted us.”
Equally disturbing down the stretch was the offense. Talented quarterback Tyler Bray was intercepted twice, flagged for an intentional grounding and ended the game with three straight three-and-outs. The last one concluded with a moment sure to make SportsCenter. Dooley caught Bray’s errant third-down throw, spiked it in frustration and sent the punt team on the field with 5:46 remaining despite trailing 37-20.
There was irony in the catch of Dooley after Hunter’s drop and a deep ball went just off the fingertips of Cordarrelle Patterson’s left-hand on an attempt at a difficult catch.
Bray was sacked twice and knocked down often.
“We knew we were gonna be the ones to stop us,” Bray said. “And that’s what happened tonight. We just kind of fell apart.”
Tennessee senior defensive back Prentiss Waggner said the Vols prepared well, but didn’t adjust well when the “lights came on and bullets were flying.”
Red-shirt senior linebacker Herman Lathers was disappointed in at least some of his teammates' effort in the fourth quarter.
“They started gashing us and, you know, guys started just, you know, hanging their heads,” he said. “We’ve … got to keep guys motivated for 60 minutes.”
How much fallout will come from the sellout? Dooley is 0-11 in top-25 matchups.
Tennessee was ranked for the first time in more than four years.
The younger team playing on the road with a first-year offensive coordinator took control in a raucous environment when it mattered. The Vols had numerous penalties, including many false starts and illegal formations.
Of course, Texas A&M, who College GameDay’s Lee Corso picked against Florida last week, might tell you Corso’s selection of Tennessee was the kiss of death.
Dooley appeared perplexed afterward, flipping around for the drive chart while temporarily pausing a press conference.
“The sky’s not gonna fall tomorrow,” Dooley said.
But you wonder if it’ll ever be as bright again for the Dooley era as it was Saturday evening.