KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Once, this was a big game, and once, this was a tough place, and once, this was a heated rivalry. Time was, winning a game by two touchdowns was enough to make a Florida player dance across the checkerboard end zones.
These days, it is just another disappointing victory for the most disappointing 3-0 team in college football.
And, once again, the sputtering continues.
Alas, the Florida Gators. They are undefeated, they are untied, and they are unimpressive. Once again, they have scuffled around the field like a rusty tractor, and once again, they have won by a deceptive margin, and once again, they are likely to drop in the polls.
Three weeks in, and still, we do not know who these Gators are, and we do not know how good they will be. All we know is that when analysts refer to this as a game of inches, they are talking about the modest improvement of a Florida team that is more talented than it has shown.
Also, tougher days are ahead.
This is not to lessen the importance of winning a road game in the SEC. When the Gators beat Tennessee 31-17 at Neyland Stadium, it was a good enough result to leave coach Urban Meyer sprinting toward the end zone to slap palms with Florida fans. There is still enough muscle left in the Tennessee program for that.
But the truth of it is that you have seen this before. Florida now has played the same game three times, and it didn't look any more impressive on Saturday than it did in the first two weeks of the season. To sum up: Florida struggles mightily with an outmanned opponent for a half, and it breaks a big play, and then it opens things up just in time for the final whistle.
In the meantime, it doesn't fool anyone. Florida fans, most of them, realize their team is not playing up to its talent level. As for the pollsters across America, they know, too. Florida opened up at No. 4, fell to No. 8, then fell again to No. 10. Where does it land this week? Maybe at 14? Maybe at 16? And have you ever seen another team win its first three by double-digit margins and fall each week?
That's what the Gators are, however. They are a flickering lightbulb. At times, they look bright enough, and warm enough, to sustain success. There are other times you suspect that you have a connection problem.
Take the Tennessee game. The Gators ran 72 plays in that one, and counting the two kneeldowns at the end of the game and John Brantley's nine incompletions, they gained 2 yards or fewer on 39 of them. They sputter and they spew, and at times, you swear you can see smoke and hear funny noises from the engine.
One game, and it was a bad start. Two games, and it was a bad trend. Three games, and it's a bad offense. There are too many runs to nowhere. There are too many wobbly passes that sail wide. There are too many plays where you swear the Gators have problems with their tempo and their rhythm. At one point in Saturday's game, Meyer threw his headphones after the play clock ran dangerously low before the Gators could run off a play. Again.
Then there is the running game, which averaged only 3.1 yards per carry despite running it 49 times. Meyer said that running is the Gators' identity. Ah, but is that because the running game is so good, or because John Brantley hasn't played well at quarterback?
True, this is a young team, and true, everyone knew there were going to be some growing pains. But shouldn't Florida and its top-shelf recruits be better than this? Especially against a Tennessee team that had been embarrassed by Oregon a week earlier in another home game.
So do you believe the unbeaten record, or do you believe the uninspired first halves? Do you think Florida has enough time to make enough improvement?
"We're a talented team," Gators cornerback Jeremy Brown said, "but we have a lot of hard work to do. We're still trying to figure it out. But this team has potential. We're going to be a good team. In a couple of weeks, I'd say."
No, the Gators are not good enough. Not yet. But after three weeks, the bigger question is whether the Gators can get good enough in time for Alabama or Georgia or South Carolina.
"Are we good enough yet?" Meyer said. "I don't know. Can we beat Kentucky at home? I don't know that. That's a flip-the-coin, man."
Some years, you would think Meyer was guilty of coach-speak.
These days, the rest of us are trying to figure Florida out, too.