Tennessee’s worst fear was confirmed Sunday: Justin Hunter tore the ACL in his left knee during the first quarter of the Volunteers’ loss at Florida on Saturday.
The 6-foot-4 sophomore from Virginia Beach, Va., will miss the rest of the season. Tennessee’s primary target, Hunter had 17 receptions for 314 yards and two touchdowns in two-plus games. He had seven TD receptions as a freshman.
As convincing as Florida’s otherwise ugly 33-23 victory was, you wondered if Hunter could have made the difference. The Gators’ young secondary generated a bizarre barrage of pass interference and defensive holding penalties and dropped four or five interceptions — and the defensive backs didn’t have to defend Hunter for 3 1/2 quarters.
Indeed, while Florida never appeared threatened in beating Tennessee for the seventh straight time, the Gators looked more vulnerable than any of their previous six teams.
A pedestrian-looking quarterback and a new scheme under Charlie Weis helped the Gators frequently bog down against a UT defense starting three true freshmen. Florida’s Chris Rainey dashed for 83 yards in what seemed like four seconds and the Gators sputtered for 264 yards in what seemed like four hours.
Of course, Tennessee tallied only 279 yards in a shaky performance. Low shotgun snaps, iffy tackling early and no threat of a running game constantly reminded you that the Vols are a work in progress.
It’s hard to remember when Florida and UT combined to make such a mess, but this is not your big brother’s SEC East. LSU, Alabama and Arkansas fans are probably calling it the SEC Least.
South Carolina looks like the cream of the crop, and East Carolina and Navy found chinks in its armor. Kentucky hung 14 points on Western Kentucky. Georgia is trying not to fire classy head coach Mark Richt.
Could Vanderbilt have a winning record in the division? First-year coach James Franklin’s Commodores hammered Ole Miss 30-7 on Saturday to improve to 3-0, and they’re getting votes in both national polls.
Vandy will need that vote of confidence when it visits South Carolina on Saturday (7 p.m., ESPN2).
Tennessee has a week off to recuperate from the loss of Hunter – two, really, if you count Buffalo’s visit to Knoxville on Oct. 1.
One thing to get ironed out is sophomore center James Stone’s snaps. It’s the kind of thing that can get in your head.
You would have thought Stone gave his uniform to former Florida center Mike Pouncey before Saturday’s game. Stone’s snaps were frequently low to 6-foot-6 quarterback Tyler Bray, and he eventually dribbled one past Bray.
There were plenty of distractions in the loud Swamp, namely Florida’s fast front seven.
“He had so many things going through his head,” Bray said. “He was thinking too much. I said, ‘Hey, just forget it.’”
Tennessee probably won’t see many defensive lines better than Florida, though South Carolina will be more dynamic off the edges.
“They were doing of a good job of timing up the blitzes,” Dooley said, “and that got our O-line affected. … We’re just not there yet.”
Bray was only sacked three times while trying to pass 51 times, but he absorbed quite a few hard hits. And Bray has good instincts in the pocket and a quick release that usually alleviate pressure.
Hunter’s injury probably cost Bray some punishment. He held the ball longer at times looking for an open target.
“It makes it a lot tougher,” Bray said. “I mean they blitzed the house all night and came after me. Our line held up for the most part, but you’re still gonna get hit when they’re blitzing that many guys.”
Unfortunately for the Hunter-less Vols, the hits figure to keep on coming.
Extra point: Dooley’s decision not to kick the PAT when Da’Rick Rogers’ 14-yard touchdown catch made the score 30-13 with 4:25 left in the third quarter was a much more unlikely path to a potential victory. A PAT kick would’ve left the Vols 17 points from the lead.
The odds of going 2-for-2 on two-point conversions in a three-score, 23-point scenario — and then winning in overtime — are long.
Dooley said he probably shouldn’t have gone for the two-point conversion, which failed on an incomplete pass. Vols fans that had wagered Tennessee would stay within 9 or 9 1/2 points probably agreed.