Once again, was it dominant? Was it clean and efficient? NO! Was it pretty. Absolutely, it was freaking beautiful. Beating Tennessee is always special and the Gator should know, they do it regularly. But, it is even better to dangle victory tauntingly in front of the Vols and their fans only to snatch it away at the last second. In Volsworld, Florida is mean old Lucy and Tennessee is likeable but pitiful Charlie Brown. Saturday we saw Florida pull the ball away grinning and Tennessee go feet up in dismay. You could tell on social media that the Gator Nation enjoyed it. Apparently, Tennessee did not.
This one looked like a Vols victory for most of the game. Even when Brandon Powell scored late in the fourth quarter to pull the Gators to within six there was little fear in the Tennessee faithful. Yet. The Vols had been steamrolling the Gator defense on the ground and would surely be able to grind out a few first downs and close out the game. However, between Vols head coach Butch Jones’ puckered potential and the Gators defensive determination Tennessee found themselves punting the ball away to the Gators with decent time on the clock. Tennessee fans saw glimpses of Oklahoma while visions of eleven danced in their heads. The rest, as they say, is history.
I could spend time here detailing some of the plays that led to this comeback win or pontificating on and on about fumbles and replays but all of that has already been done. I’d rather take a closer look at just what the victory means to the Florida Gators program and new head coach Jim McElwain. Those two late touchdowns were immensely important to the Gators future this season and beyond. A loss would have left the Gators at 3-1 heading into a grueling October schedule with pride and confidence both severely bruised. A 7-5 or even 6-6 season would be not only possible but probable at that point. The team would have every reason to start questioning if they could beat even a struggling Missouri team on the road much less some of the highly ranked teams looming ahead.
A win, however, puts the Gators at 4-0, ranked in both polls for the first time since 2013 and suddenly believing that if they work and prepare hard enough there is no reason why they can’t beat Ole Miss in the Swamp next week. Now, there are four games left on the schedule that should see Florida enter the game as the favorite. Win those four and the Gators are 8-4 which coincidentally has been my prediction all along. Pull off a couple of upsets and this season could surprisingly turn into something special. The victory over Tennessee opened up so many possibilities.
Unfortunately, not all of those possibilities are good. Injuries could derail this season very quickly. This is the SEC where every week and every opponent can derail your progress. Recent events bring into question whether all of the Gators have completely bought into the TEAM concept that McElwain is selling. People and teams are never just great. They are great because they first decided that they truly desired greatness and then went out and put in the work and effort required to make greatness a reality. If greatness was easy, it wouldn’t be great. The Gator players must decide whether or not they are willing to make greatness their priority.
Which brings us back to the Tennessee game. Big wins like that can change the mentality and perspective of players and teams. That kind of game can MAKE greatness the priority to players who were not yet completely vested. The Florida Gators football team discovered a leader at quarterback in the fourth quarter Saturday and the rest of the offense rallied around him. Everyone noticed Grier’s poise and accuracy on the critical fourth down that resulted in Antonio Callaway’s go ahead touchdown. Callaway’s run after the catch will be a highlight for the Gators for decades. Lost to some in all the excitement was Brandon Powell diving across the path of three Vols defenders to help spring Calloway for that touchdown. The offensive line gave Will plenty of time for the play to develop. In fact, while there is still a long way to go to be good at run blocking, the line sprung a few really nice runs. There were plays where Grier had good time to throw the ball. And Tennessee has a good defensive line. The offense is beginning to come together. If the defense can keep the Gators in games the offense may catch up.
It didn’t hurt to have that kind of excitement and atmosphere in the Swamp while so many talented recruits were visiting. That comeback may well help McElwain close out a superb recruiting class. All in all, this was one of the great games in Florida Gators football history. This is the kind of game that can make a new coach’s rebuilding program a one year project instead of a three year project. The quickest way to become a better team is to bring in more talent. Games like this help. It helps team confidence aw well. This is now a Gator team that knows they are never out of the game. There is a big difference between knowing you can win and hoping you can win. The Gators aren’t back to where they want to be just yet, but this was one giant step in the right direction and 4-0 means 5-0 is still possible.