So much for the streak. So much for the Gators’ signature swagger. So much for being in control of the SEC East.

The defending SEC East champs find themselves in unfamiliar territory after squandering an 18-point halftime lead and giving up 35 straight points to ultimately fall 38-28 at Tennessee. The big question moving forward will be if the leaders of coach Jim McElwain’s squad learned from last year’s disastrous finish.

5 Takeaways

  • DBU has some explaining to do: Up 21-0 and 21-3 at halftime, it looked like Florida could lean on its defense to make it 12 in a row over the Volunteers. The Gators’ secondary likes to call itself DBU, and went as far as guaranteeing a win earlier in the week. But QB Joshua Dobbs and the Tennessee passing attack dominated the second half, cashing in on multiple busted coverages, including one by Teez Tabor on a long touchdown.
  • The biggest injury didn’t matter: If someone had told Florida fans that Austin Appleby would throw for almost 300 yards (296) and three touchdowns to one interception, they all would have gladly taken that stat line. Appleby showed he’s plenty capable to lead the Gators in Luke Del Rio’s absence.
  • The anti-Spurrier: The Head Ball Coach was in the house at Neyland Stadium, and it must have been hard for him to watch McElwain and his staff switch into “play not to lose” mode in the second half and go painfully conservative trying to run the clock and sit on a lead. Spurrier, at least in his Florida days, would have tried to hang another 21, or more, on the Vols.
  • Antonio Callaway needs to work on punt returns: While he was out with a quad injury for the North Texas game, Callaway apparently forgot how to properly return punts. After calling for a fair catch far too close to his own goal line in the first quarter, and muffing the punt, he called for a fair catch again in the fourth quarter on the 1-yard line.
  • It’s all about the response: The Gators should be embarrassed that they talked a big game and didn’t back it up. And unlike last year, they no longer control their destiny in the SEC East. What matters, starting today, is how they respond. We’ve seen a Florida team seemingly crack after a rivalry loss, with the FSU game last year being the start of a three-loss finish.

Report Card

Offense: D+ – As mentioned earlier, this one isn’t really on Appleby, but the costly interception was the result of a poor decision. The running game, and the offensive line, ultimately let the team down, particularly in the second half as it set up repeated third-and-long situations that led to three-and-outs.

Defense: F – A 10-point loss on the road to the SEC East favorite can be tolerated, but when it comes by giving up 35 second-half points, that’s an “F” of a performance. Adding insult to injury, it was Florida’s defensive backs – noted trash talkers – who got embarrassed in the second half.

Special teams: C- – Johnny Townsend had one punt go short, but he finished with an average of 48.6 yards per punt on eight punts. Callaway’s judgement of when to call fair catch, however, is concerning going forward.

Coaching: D – McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier looked brilliant in the first half, mixing up the run and pass, taking deep shots to keep the Vols on their toes. The defense also had success in the first half when it blitzed Dobbs. These strategies were seemingly abandoned in the second half, which outweighs the first half due to the final score. Much of the blame for the loss is on the coaches.

Overall: F – The second-half collapse outweighs the first-half positives on offense and turnovers by the defense. The Gators were in position to close out a key win and take control of the SEC East, and they dropped the ball in a big way.

Game Plan

In the first half, the Gators made a point to show that Appleby was capable of running the same offense that had been run with Del Rio. In the second half, that plan was apparently scrapped in favor of going ultra conservative to chew clock and hold on to an 18-point lead.

The change in strategy played a huge part in allowing the Volunteers to take the momentum and start scoring repeatedly on a winded Gators defense that couldn’t get any rest with the offense constantly going three-and-out.

Game Balls

  • QB Austin Appleby: While he likely wants to forget what happened in the game, Appleby deserves a game ball for his first start and first touchdown pass as a Gator.
  • WR Tyrie Cleveland: The blue-chip freshman recorded his first career catch Saturday, a 36-yard reception in tight space down in the red zone. The Gators are certainly hoping to work Cleveland into the receiver rotation more going forward.