BY WAYNE PHILLIPS
KNOXVILLE -- As painful as it is for University of Tennessee football fans to admit, Florida made the Volunteers look like just a mediocre Southeastern Conference team Saturday night at Neyland Stadium.
Few saw this coming.
With the largest crowd in several years inside the stadium, the majority of whom were there in hopes that UT would end Florida's seven-game winning streak, a national television audience watching on ESPN, and with enough energy from the crowd to prod on the home team, the Vols played a solid first half and went toe-to-toe with the Gators.
The Vols even scored on their first possession of the second half to take a 20-13 lead.
Then the roof caved in. The Gators reeled off 24 unanswered points the rest of the way to extend their mastery in the series with a 37-20 victory.
Which leaves us to think either one of two things:
(1) The Gators, who have won back-to-back SEC games with second half uprisings (they did a similar turnaround against Texas A&M the week prior), are better than the prognosticators say. Georgia and South Carolina are supposed to be the two best teams in the SEC East. Or,
(2) An early-season overrated Tennessee squad is still not ready to move back into the upper echelon of the conference, despite a solid start to the year and a passing game that is among the best in the country.
Quarterback Tyler Bray could not get the UT offense moving after the opening touchdown of the second half. The Vols seemed to become one-dimensional, throwing the ball on about every down, and Florida was able to lay their ears back and keep Bray from getting set in the pocket.
Meanwhile, the defense was on the field a lot. And it appeared the Vols became tired as they were chasing receivers and backs with much less gusto than they displayed in the opening half.
"I say it every week ... big plays, turnovers," a disappointed Coach Derek Dooley said after the game. "I think our perimeter (defense) looked a little tired. We weren't moving. When they (Florida) took a shot at them, they didn't have that extra juice. I don't know. You can't give up those plays in this league and expect to win. You just can't."
The Vols led 14-10 at the break and Florida kicked a 25-yd. field goal to start the third quarter scoring and close to 14-13. The Vols charged right back, moving the length of the field to score again, with converted linebacker AJ Johnson going into the "wildcat" formation and scoring on a 1-yd. plunge.
In keeping with the trend of missing an extra point in each of their three games thus far, Derrick Brodus clanked the ball off the left goal post and it caromed wayward, leaving the Vols up 20-13.
Florida went for it on fourth down at midfield on a fake punt, but the Vols sniffed it out and stopped the Gators, leaving the Vols in great field position with a chance to put some distance between themselves and their foe.
But move the ball they didn't. They punted to the end zone. Florida took over at the 20, and Trey Burton moved to the wildcat formation for the Gators and on first down took it 80 yds. to the house, and the momentum had turned in a big way.
With the score now knotted, Bray threw an interception under duress. Mike Gillislee responded with a 45-yd. run followed by a touchdown pass from Jeff Driskel to Jordan Reed. The rout was on.
"It's disappointing," Dooley said. "We came in here expecting to win. We knew it was going to be tough. We had a great game going and we just let it slip away. You know, the sky's not going to fall tomorrow. We're going to have to learn from it. They're a good football team and we lost. We've got to make sure we don't make those kinds of mistakes again because we're going to be in a lot of fourth quarter games. We've got to execute in the fourth. We did it in the first game. We didn't do it this game. We won the first game and we lost this one."
*Johnny Majors had his No. 45 jersey retired in a pre-game ceremony on the field, becoming the eighth Vol to have his jersey retired.
*ESPN GameDay returned to Knoxville for the first time since 2004.
*Despite a run game that seemed to disappear in the second half, Rajion Neal ran for 87 yds. on 23 carries, the most rushing yards by a Vol since Montario Hardesty got 96 yds. in 2009.
*Bray had two touchdown passes in the game, but he also suffered his first two interceptions of the campaign.
*Tennessee will host Akron on Saturday at Neyland Stadium with a 7:30 p.m. starting time.
Florida 7 3 17 10 -- 37
Tennessee 7 7 6 0 -- 20
Fla--T.Burton 14 run (Sturgis kick), 7:52.
Tenn--Patterson 2 pass from Bray (Brodus kick), 3:02.
Tenn--Rivera 6 pass from Bray (Brodus kick), 8:40.
Fla--FG Sturgis 20, :00.
Fla--FG Sturgis 25, 12:22.
Tenn--Johnson 1 run (kick failed), 7:33.
Fla--T.Burton 80 run (Sturgis kick), 3:15.
Fla--Reed 23 pass from Driskel (Sturgis kick), :30.
Fla--Hammond 75 pass from Driskel (Sturgis kick), 9:55.
Fla--FG Sturgis 49, 6:44.
First downs 20 19
Rushes-yards 43-336 28-83
Passing 219 257
Comp-Att-Int 14-20-0 22-44-2
Return Yards 38 8
Punts-Avg. 5-48.6 8-44.0
Fumbles-Lost 2-0 0-0
Penalties-Yards 8-78 9-59
Time of Possession 33:13 26:47
RUSHING--Florida, Gillislee 18-115, T.Burton 3-91, Driskel 8-81, Patton 3-34, Jones 5-9, Elam 1-5, M.Brown 1-3, Debose 2-1, Team 2-(minus 3). Tennessee, Neal 23-87, Johnson 2-5, Lane 1-1, Bray 2-(minus 10).
PASSING--Florida, Driskel 14-20-0-219. Tennessee, Bray 22-44-2-257.
RECEIVING--Florida, Reed 5-60, Dunbar 3-30, T.Burton 2-38, Hammond 1-75, Patton 1-17, Joyer 1-5, Hines 1-(minus 6). Tennessee, Patterson 8-75, Hunter 5-76, Rivera 4-47, Rogers 3-39, Neal 2-20.