Instant Analysis: Florida-Tennessee

History was redeemed for the Florida Gators tonight. The loose ends were tied up, the unfinished business was completed, the poetic justice was delivered, and the nightmares of seasons past were faced and, ultimately, averted.

For some, an ideal script in a big game involves a blowout, and goodness knows, the first ten minutes of Saturday night’s game against the Tennessee Volunteers suggested as much for the Gators. But for a team that’s learning how to win in the Urban Meyer era–not to mention a team that’s playing football in September, not November–a one-point win is a much more perfect scenario. It really couldn’t have been any better for Florida on a glorious Neyland night in Knoxville.

Think of the history that was made, averted and redeemed in one emotional night of rousing, mistake-filled, and ultimately successful football for the Gators. The stats are satisfying, the realities richly rewarding:

* The one-point win (28-27) Florida should have had in 2004 became the one-point win the Gators grabbed this time around in Neyland Stadium. After having a game taken away from them two seasons ago, the Gators snatched this game away from the Vols down the stretch.

* The road win Chris Leak deserved two years ago became the win he gained this season, thanks to his own persistence and the vital help of fellow quarterback Tim Tebow, whose spread-formation runs–including a huge fourth-down conversion on the go-ahead touchdown drive–ushered Leak into the winner’s circle.

* The SEC road woes that plagued the Gators throughout 2005 under Meyer were vaporized by the kind of poised and gritty effort that great road wins–and teams–are made of.

* The scorer of the tying touchdown–which enabled Florida to take the lead for good on the ensuing extra point–was none other than Dallas Baker. Could there have been a more fitting recipient of a difference-making touchdown pass in this particular game in this particular stadium against this particular Florida opponent?

All in all, this kind of win–not a 30-point rout–is the kind of win that, like Snickers, really satisfies. The Gators’ one-point squeaker is so delici ous because it doesn’t just accomplish the immediate goals of beating the Vols and getting a leg up in the SEC East race; this narrow escape from Knoxville has to cheer the Gator Nation because it points the way to a big season for Urban Meyer’s team. To understand this, it helps to be a student of spirituality.

The great spiritual masters–anywhere, anytime–will tell you that in order to grow as a person, one must go directly through hardships and negative thoughts. One must confront personal demons and the dark corners of the mind before true peace and understanding can be attained. But once that process is undertaken and then successfully carried out, a human being can breathe free, liberated in the knowledge that darkness and pain can no longer lay claim to the soul within.

So it was for the Gators this Saturday night in Knoxville.

While contending with Tennessee–a fairly important and complicated matter in its own right–Florida had to confront all the demons and issues that had been plaguing the program over the past few years: Chris Leak throwing softballs that got intercepted; Chris Leak sliding short of the first-down marker; Chris Leak throwing a pick-six (thankfully, it was wiped out by a roughing-the-passer penalty); Chris Leak taking a bad sack at the UT 36; the Gators’ defensive front finding no pass rush; special teams nightmares, this night in the form of two missed field goals and repeated illegal block penalties on big returns. The frustrating nature of the first half for the Gators was capsulized by the fact that Phil Fulmer and David Cutcliffe, not Meyer and Dan Mullen, sprung a difference-making gadget play on offense. The frustrating nature of Florida’s second half was embodied in the fact that the Vols–despite a ground game that was smothered by UF’s front seven–repeatedly managed to move the sticks with a short passing game. From the very beginning until the 2:45 mark of regulation–when Tennessee’s last-gasp pass was intercepted–Florida faced one obstacle after another, a series of the persistent problems from prior years that just wouldn’t go away. The Gators had to conquer all these demons to prevail, and in the end, they did.

Isn’t that much more satisfying than a blowout?

And what’s more, UF’s confidence is now going to be established and sustained in ways that a feel-good joyride of a romp never could have achieved. Coming through in this kind of a college football crucible is the rite-of-passage moment that should mark the transformation of Florida’s program from a learning one to a growing one. While 2005 was an Autumn for learning, 2006–on the strength of this win–just became a season in which the Gators are growing before the eyes of Meyer and his coaching staff. A blowout would have provided a fair measure of false confidence, confidence untested by in-game adversity; but this 21-20 victory injects the Gators with crunch-time confidence and a level of belief that will be very hard to expunge from this ballclub.

It was a night that, for a long time, reminded Gator fans of the painful night loss to Tennessee in 1998; but in the end, this game seemed a whole lot more like the 2000 affair, when Tennessee’s field goals ultimately caught up with the Vols, and a late touchdown from Florida (yeah, it came a LOT later six years ago than it did tonight) made the difference.

And oh, one other thing about that 2000 triumph over the Vols: it propelled the Gators to an SEC championship, the last one Florida has won.

History was redeemed for the Florida Gators tonight; they only hope they can repeat history as the rest of the 2006 season continues.