Checking back in on the Vols
Hello again everyone. I’m coming back at you again after a week off. I figured the self-imposed bye week made since given that 1) Vanderbilt was also on a bye last week and 2) I wouldn’t have had a Vawl game to recap last week anyway. Candidly, though, I was traveling and also just didn’t get around to it.
During my travels, unfortunately, Tennessee did pick up at least a decently impressive road win against a formerly ranked Kentucky team. What a lot of people fail to recognize, however, is that the only team that has struggled more against Tennessee than Vanderbilt (only six wins) over the past 30 or so years is Kentucky (just three wins since 1990). Keeping that in mind, last Saturday was certainly a game that the Wildcats would be prone to fumble away, which they ended up doing in the game’s dwindling seconds.
For this week’s Tennessee recap, we go to a series that has been pretty lopsided in the other direction, where Tennessee has just a 1 win in the past 17 seasons. In 2015, Butch Jones tried to snap was an eleven game losing streak against the Florida Gators in a trip to The Swamp that would be as good a chance at any to end a decade of misery.
Part IV: Tennessee 27, Florida 28 (2015)
Tennessee entered Gainesville at 2-1 against the then undefeated Florida Gators in Butch Jones’ third year coaching the Vols. Following the dumpster fire that Derek Dooley had left in Knoxville, any logical college football follower had shown Jones grace up to that point for a couple of 0.500 seasons while he built the program back “Brick by Brick,” as he used to say. The foundation looked solid for Butch’s third season, bringing staples at key positions in QB Josh Dobbs, Running backs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara, and lest we forget Face Stomper Jauan Jennings to round out the offense.
The 2015 Tennessee team had looked pretty solid in its first few games, with the lone loss coming at home in Overtime to a top-10 Oklahoma Sooners team that featured current Brown’s quarterback Baker Mayfield. With their talent as good as any team in the SEC and expectations still high for the rest of the season, Tennessee entered their first conference test anticipating a win against what many thought was an equally matched Florida team.
For most of the game, Tennessee looked like the better opponent. They had a fun trick play early where Joshua Dobbs caught a pass for a 58 yard touchdown and largely kept the Florida Gators offense in check in the game’s first three and a half quarters. We all know, though, that the fun always begins in the dwindling minutes for these infamous Tennessee meltdowns, and this game would be no different.
With ten minutes left in the game, Tennessee RB Jalen Hurd rushed in from ten yards out to cap a nearly 8-minute drive that put the Vols up 27 - 14 - a firm lead, but certainly not an insurmountable one. It effectively put Florida’s back against the wall as they would need two touchdowns sandwiched with a quick stop to have a chance at the comeback.
The first of these Florida drives would start with about ten minutes left in the game. Simply put, one stop here by the Tennessee Defense, which had performed admirably the entire game, would end this one. Their first chance would come on a 4th and 7 play that Florida converted from midfield on a bit of a flukey back foot pass from quarterback Jeff Driskel. Vol fans had yet to hit the panic button at this juncture, there was still a sizable hill for Florida to climb, right?
Just a few plays later, Florida would have another 4th and long to convert as they tried to extend the game, this time at Tennessee’s 21 yards line as the clock ticked below 5 minutes left. Yet again, the Gators would find a way to get the necessary yardage with a check down pass over the middle that would advance them all the way down to the Tennessee 5 yard line. Following that defensive lapse, Florida soon after inched closer to a 21-27 deficit a couple plays later with 4:09 left on the clock.
Blood pressure rising but still in control, the mission became simpler for Butch Jones’ Vols - find a way to get a first down or two and this game is over. Somehow, that message didn’t compute for the Tennessee offense, which ran three extremely conservative running plays in a row to then punt and quickly gift Florida the ball at their own 41 with two minutes remaining. Jones had summoned his inner Atlanta Falcons and abandoned the very game plan that had gotten them this lead in the first place.
Amidst these recent lapses, the situation still heavily favored Tennessee, who only needed to keep Florida out of the end zone to secure this now once in a decade victory over the Gators. And quickly, it seemed as if they would do just that as Florida soon faced a daunting 4th down and 14 from their own 37 yard line. Surely the third time would be the charm here for Tennessee, right? It would be unlikely to give up three third downs in a row (and the fifth of the game), let alone a fourteen yard conversion where everyone knows that the throw has to go beyond the sticks.
And yet, a tragic fate would come for Tennessee, regardless of their bolstered roster and newfound confidence in the Butch Jones era. Not only would Florida convert the 4th and long, but receiver Antonio Callaway would weave his way through a panicked Tennessee defense 63 yards to the end zone as the sold out Swamp let out a deafening roar.
The icing on the cake here was that Tennessee had another chance after letting their late lead so quickly slip away. If anything, Florida had scored too early, leaving Tennessee with two time outs and just needing a field goal to avoid the heartbreak and shame that was sure to come from choking away the first win against Florida since 2004.
But for a Tennessee football fan, what’s the only thing worse than letting a lead slip away? Hope. And that’s exactly what this team so unfairly gave to them when Josh Dobbs and company marched into Florida territory with time winding down to set up a game-winning field goal. A substitution infraction by Tennessee would back them up a few yards as kicker Aaron Medley had a 55 yard attempt to salvage the game.
He missed his first attempt, but Florida called a timeout in an effort to ice him. All this meant, however, was that the knife remained in Tennessee for another 90 seconds before Florida would eventually twist it. Medley’s 2nd attempt barely missed right, and the Gators officially completed a comeback that featured three separate 4th down conversions, the last of which gave them the lead for good.
People make fun of Butch Jones, but to his credit he gave Tennessee their best football teams since the early 2000s. The talent he had across the board was objectively as good as any SEC team. What hurts about this loss, and so many others in the 2015 campaign, was that Tennessee so easily could have won this game. For a team that lost only four games on the season, those four games were all within one score for Tennessee. A bounce here or there and the 2015 Vols really could have competed for an SEC title.
In my opinion, Butch Jones was as good as Tennesee is ever going to get when it comes to changing a culture, recruiting top players, and competing with the SEC’s best teams. To Tennessee’s credit, they would get their revenge in 2016 against Florida when the series returned to Knoxville (they’ve lost the past five since then, don’t worry). Tennessee’s 2016 team returned much of the same talent at key positions, so surely they’d take that next step and make at least a top-tier bowl game, right? Find out next week as we head to Nashville for our finale.