What does it mean to finally beat Florida? Only everything
Saturday afternoon, Butch Jones delivered the magic that has been four seasons in the making, when the Tennessee Vols FINALLY knocked off the Florida Gators, turning a 21-0 deficit into a landmark 38-28 victory Saturday at Neyland Stadium.
This afternoon’s Neyland Rebirth was less about ending the 11-game losing streak to Florida (although that definitely mattered) than it was about Tennessee returning to the top of the SEC East, a return that’s been at least a decade in the making, although probably more like a decade and a half.
The battle for the East, henceforth, goes back through Knoxville.
Any questions? Settle them on the field.
Tennessee didn’t just beat Florida, Tennessee beat its demons, one at a time, on Saturday afternoon. Josh Dobbs isn’t a good enough passer? Well, here’s four superb touchdown throws and 300-plus yards. The defense is playing weak and uninspired? Well, time to absolutely shut the Gators down during the bulk of the second half. Butch Jones is destined to be the coach who comes close, but doesn’t close the deal? Not so fast.
The enemies on the field in the Southeastern Conference are unforgiving. They pass, run, tackle, and knock you into constant adversity. But it’s the enemies in your own huddle, the ghosts of past failure, who are the hardest to vanquish. The Tennessee/Florida streak — wait, the former Tennessee/Florida streak — mattered because it was less about Tennessee’s rotation of coaching changes or about any deficiency in talent than it was about mental toughness, making the breaks of football, and refusing to lose.
The skeptics are happily gone. I know. I had become one.
Sometime around the time when Jajuan Jennings sailed past Teez Tabor down the right sideline and Joshua Dobbs spotted him an uncorked a deep throw, Vol Nation held its breath. A 21-0 deficit had been methodically trimmed to 21-17. Now, the lead hung in the balance. So many times before in this losing streak, the ball would be dropped, a flag would appear, or Jennings would catch the pass and tumble out of bounds, at best. But not this year.
Jennings struggled, wide open, he bobbled the ball uncertainly for just a second, one last ghost swatting invisibly to drag Tennessee into a past that didn’t fit anymore. But Jennings caught the ball, righted his momentum away from the sideline, and scored.
The rest was an anti-climax.
The streak was dead.
The past was dead.
The future, for Tennessee, is now.
The East is theirs for the taking. And more? Perhaps.
But before Vol Nation gets too carried away, savor this one for a minute. It means plenty, and anybody who tells you otherwise is still chasing ghosts. That’s fine, but Tennessee football is too much fun right now to worry about yesterday or tomorrow.