Florida’s loss to Tennessee resembled other big games of recent seasons

Florida’s close road loss to Tennessee over the weekend was an instant classic, albeit the kind like 2007 LSU where you wish the outcome was reversed.

But while the contest against UT had little resemblance to the run-heavy loss to the Tigers 15 years ago, it did bear some resemblance to tough losses against other teams in recent memory. There weren’t any close parallels to last year; the matchup wasn’t as lopsided on paper as the Bama game in 2021, and it wasn’t a complete disappointment like losing to an LSU team whose coach had already secretly been fired. Anthony Richardson got on a roll both in that latter game and over the weekend, though.

So while caveating that neither team last weekend is as good as their counterparts in the examples that follow, there were some obvious parallels to be seen.

2020 SEC Championship Game

The last time Florida went to Atlanta, it turned out to be a game of big play after big play. I wrote up 17 plays that had big effects on the outcome, but I could’ve done even more.

The game in Knoxville was also a game of big plays. There was the first coverage bust that gave the Vols a big play. There was the second coverage bust. There was then… how many coverage busts were there? Hendon Hooker had that big 44 yard carry, and of course the Vols got pressure on AR on the final Hail Mary attempt.

On the flip side, the Gators had plenty of big plays of their own. You had Keon Zipperer going Beast Mode to register the team’s first passing touchdown of the year. There was Richardson’s 4th down bomb to Justin Shorter. The defense managed to force a couple of turnovers, and special teams came through with a memorable onside kick recovery.

There also is a strategic parallel to these two games.

Billy Napier went for two late after scoring to pull the game with 11 points. Getting it would’ve put UF down nine points, offering them the chance to win in regulation on a touchdown with an extra point and a field goal.

Set aside the field goal component of that for a sec. Assume the Gators made their first half attempt, or the Vols missed theirs. Doesn’t matter. The situation late would’ve been UF going from 14 down to eight, at which point getting the two pointer would’ve made them down six.

That’s exactly the thing that Dan Mullen did against the Tide at an even later point in the game. Kyle Trask hit Kyle Pitts for a 22-yard touchdown with just over two minutes to go. UF went for the conversion, and Trask got it on a run. Florida was then down six with a theoretical chance to win in regulation with a touchdown and extra point.

Now, Mullen botched the situation by calling a timeout to preserve the short field on the two pointer. UF was coming up on a delay of game, and Mullen, knowing the situation was beyond repair, should’ve kept the timeout in his pocket and kicked the extra point after backing up five yards. Mullen actually admitted as much after the game, which shows you how obvious a miscue it was if he was willing to own up to it.

That said, it’s the same strategic math: go for two to give yourself a better chance at winning in regulation. Given UF’s general inability to get stops in both games, it’s a defensible move. Speaking of not being able to get stops…

2019 LSU

Again: the teams last Saturday were at not at all as good as the teams in these comparison games. The 2019 Bayou Bengals are an all-timer, while this year’s Tennessee squad is barely more than half a team. That said, this game from a few years ago was one where it seemed like after a couple of drive-killing miscues early by the opponent, Florida was almost completely helpless in getting stops.

Increasing the parallel is that it took a truly heroic effort from the Gator quarterback to keep the team in the game, but a heartbreaking turnover late put the margin out of reach.

Trask threw for 310 yards on 39 attempts (7.9 per pass) with three touchdowns and one pick. Richardson, facing a lesser defense that sold out on the run all game, threw for 453 yards on 44 attempts (10.3 per pass) with two scores and a pick on the Hail Mary. He also added 62 yards on 11 carries with a pair of scores on the ground.

Trask’s one pick was the killer in the game three years ago. The Gator defense had somehow lucked its way into forcing LSU’s sole second half punt, and he drove the team down the field at about halfway through the fourth quarter. Under duress, however, he shortarmed a ball to Freddie Swain in the end zone that LSU picked off. A touchdown there would’ve pulled the Gators within seven, but instead LSU went 80 yards in four plays to put the game out of reach.

A late miscue sullied Richardson’s performance too. UF was down ten points during a drive that spanned the third and fourth quarters. On first down from the Tennessee 13, Richardson didn’t seem to completely catch the snap cleanly, and he didn’t follow his blockers on a designed run. A pair of Vols sandwiched him, and the ball came out. UT burned more than four-and-a-half minutes of clock on a ten play, 87-yard touchdown drive.

The game was then out of reach. Or, at least, out of reach barring a miracle that very nearly happened.

The upshot

At some point, Florida needs to start having a bunch of classic games where they end up in the win column. It’s interesting but not all that fun to walk down memory lane to show how the latest exciting, close loss was like those other exciting, close (or close-ish) losses.

But the 2019 loss to LSU didn’t kill the season. The Gators still fell close to Georgia, but they won every other contest the rest of the way. The 2020 team checked out on its bowl, but the loss took away Florida’s fear of the Tide and probably helped them confidently almost beat Bama the following season with a much lesser team.

There’s that phrase again: “almost beat”. It’s better to lose close than big, but Napier needs more games like the one against Utah than last weekend’s against Tennessee. He would tell you as much if you asked, and I’m sure there’s a plan to get there soon.

David Wunderlich
David Wunderlich is a born-and-raised Gator and a proud Florida alum. He has been writing about Florida and SEC football since 2006. He currently lives in Naples Italy, at least until the Navy stations his wife elsewhere. You can follow him on Twitter @Year2