KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Once in a while, the best thing that can happen is for the absolute worst thing to happen. Tennessee was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct on the opening kickoff. It yielded a 51-yard reception on the second snap. It was handed the ball on the Florida 2 and couldn’t score. Its receivers dropped five passes. Its quarterback threw an end-zone interception. It was booed at halftime.
In the biggest game here since Phillip Fulmer was given the gate, the Volunteers trailed 21-0 after 25 minutes. They trailed Florida, the opponent Tennessee hadn’t beaten since 2004, the year before Urban Meyer took over in Gainesville and four Tennessee coaches ago. The Vols fell behind a team working without its No. 1 quarterback. They fell behind with Uncle Verne and College GameDay on hand.
After 25 minutes, Tennessee wasn’t just a team having a rotten day. It was a touted aggregation about to be revealed as an abject fraud. In the press box at halftime, a chastened man in an orange-checkered shirt said, “The half is over. Didn’t say it was good. Just saying it’s over.”
The second half began. It was, shall we say, different.
Over 22½ minutes, Tennessee outscored the Gators 35-0, outgained them 314 yards to -9. The Fraud Squad stood down. The Vols of Butch Jones hadn’t just proved they could win a Big Game. They won this one 38-28 after getting everything wrong. They flirted with embarrassment. They walked away with what can, at least for one week, be deemed vindication.
Said Jones: “That first half, that wasn’t us. Every man knew that. When we came out the second half, I knew this football team was not to be denied.”
Yes, this is all subject to change. Tennessee visits Sanford Stadium next week, and Georgia has reason to feel abashed. But Florida had become the Vols’ bogeyman: With that run of failure put to rest, who knows what Tennessee might do?
Nobody doubts that Tennessee has talent, but every game under Jones against an opponent of similar caliber save one had ended in a loss. The exception was against Georgia last year on a day when Nick Chubb was hurt on the first play. This season had seen the Vols need overtime to outlast Appalachian State, then fall behind Virginia Tech 14-0, then struggle with Ohio of the Mid-American Conference. Tennessee entered Saturday’s game having not lost but having impressed nobody.
In 22½ minutes, everything changed. Josh Dobbs of Alpharetta, Ga., delivered 4 touchdown passes in 10 minutes and 41 seconds. The receivers who couldn’t catch a cold started snagging everything. A defense that made a bumped-up backup quarterback look good for a half — behind Austin Appleby, Florida had 300 yards in two quarters — couldn’t be breached for a first down.
“We came into the locker room saying, ‘Don’t panic,’ ” Dobbs said, but the moment for panicking already had gone. Whatever the Vols did in the second half had to be an improvement, did it not?
Had they lost to Florida by any margin, it would have thrown the entire Jones rebuild — the “brick by brick” stuff” — into serious question. Tennessee was the pick to win the SEC East, as opposed to defending champ Florida, which was slotted behind Georgia. This was widely seen as a must-win for Jones, who afterward bristled at the characterization.
“The local media has to understand,” he said. “We’ve got something special here with character and competitiveness … (My players) responded like you’d want, and I’m exceptionally proud of that.”
When it was 21-0, not many folks would have traded places with Jones. At the end of this careening day, the denizens of Big Orange Country were ready to hoist him on high. After nearly a decade in the wilderness, a proud program had been served a fresh helping of pride.