Tennessee football gave itself a chance at Florida and dropped the football | Estes
Jimmy Calloway was so wide open. He could have run forever — or at least until The Swamp grass turns orange.
He could have scored. Tennessee could have been within a field goal of 11th-ranked Florida in the final stages of the third quarter. And then, who knows? Maybe the Vols keep digging and find a few more big plays. Maybe the Gators get nervous and do what they never do against Tennessee. Maybe they choke. Maybe it’s a night in Gainesville for Josh Heupel to immortalize rather than bemoan.
We’ll never know.
None of that mattered because Calloway didn’t catch the ball. The moment he dropped Hendon Hooker’s short pass on fourth-and-5 was when Tennessee’s slim chance at Florida became none.
“When you're playing a really good football team like this,” said Heupel after the 38-14 defeat, “and there's opportunities and those things arise, you've got to make those plays.”
The Gators immediately turned Calloway’s drop into a touchdown and were able to break free from the Vols, who’d been pesky in the manner of a team that was capable of making this interesting – but not about to go win the game. Tennessee was never polished enough for that.
The Vols made all kinds of miscues Saturday. Perhaps they’ll draw comfort in managing to still be more competitive than anticipated against a foe that had almost knocked off top-ranked Alabama the week before.
Everyone will say that Florida – given the shaky start – was still dwelling on last weekend’s near-miss and didn’t put its best into preparing for Tennessee.
Probably some truth to that, though it shouldn’t diminish the fact the Vols gave themselves an honest-to-goodness chance. At one point in the first half, they led 14-10 and had outgained the home team 181 yards to 108. That was their doing, not just the Gators.
But the Vols needed to sniff perfection to pull off an upset of this magnitude, and they weren’t close. They messed around and didn’t execute well enough to seize that opportunity. That, too, was on them, just as it was a couple of weeks ago when Tennessee did the same thing and lost at home to very beatable Pitt team.
And so, we’re left with an inconclusive verdict after the first month of the Heupel era in Knoxville. It continues to be an eye-of-the-beholder kind of experience. Whether you’re looking for good or bad at this point, you’ll see it.
In its two losses, Tennessee (2-2, 0-1 SEC) has committed 23 penalties for 219 yards. At times, organization on the sideline has been lacking. How do you end up with nine players out there on a punt return?
Can’t shrug off issues like these. They are costly and preventable. They have nothing to do with recruiting rankings or a lack of talent or depth.
On the flip side, I can’t help but be encouraged by how Tennessee looks under Heupel.
Not blown away, mind you.
Encouraged … by the effort … by the buy-in … by the clear potential of an offensive system that keeps putting Tennessee's skill players in position to make plays – whether or not they can actually make them.
Talent is a concern, but not as much as I thought it would be this season. Considering what Tennessee lost in the transfer portal – off a 2020 roster that wasn’t any good anyway – how could anyone realistically expect the Vols to hang with teams like the Gators?
Total rebuilds can be nasty for first-year SEC coaches. Did you watch Vanderbilt against Georgia earlier Saturday? It was humiliating. The Commodores are a joke right now. They have no hope to compete.
These Vols could have been a joke, too, and they’re not.
As much as that might speak well about where things are headed for Heupel, it’s not going to be enough to satisfy anyone associated with Tennessee’s program. Its supporters have been walking this seemingly endless road back to relevance for so long that mere potential won’t stir much excitement.
In other words, figure out how to catch a wide-open pass you've gotta catch on fourth down in The Swamp.
Tennessee didn't just drop that pass on Saturday.
Feels like it has been dropping it for more than a decade.
Reach Gentry Estes at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.