Two hours before Saturday afternoon's SEC showdown between Florida and Tennessee, a group of Vols fans stood and booed vociferously as the Florida players entered the stadium. By the game's third quarter, amid giant gaps of empty seats, the Vols fans had turned those boos on their own team. That's the kind of day it was for Tennessee. The game was over by the time the first quarter ended. Leading by 17 fewer than 11 minutes in, No. 4 Florida never trailed on its way to a 30-6 victory in front of 106,138 at Tennessee's Neyland Stadium — the Gators' fourth straight win over the Vols. "The theme of the day was play great defense, be a tough outfit and take care of the ball," Florida coach Urban Meyer said. "And we did that."
Forget all of that talk about Florida's high-powered offense led by Heisman winner Tim Tebow and its big-play receivers. Saturday, the stars played defense and special teams.
The Gators scored 13 points off turnovers and special teams play (including a 78-yard punt return by Brandon James) in the first half. Florida (3-0, 1-0 SEC) had a 17-point lead before the first quarter ended and held the Vols to 258 total yards.
"The good thing about it is we are playing together as a team and they have a chip on their shoulder just because of the way we played last year," Gators defensive coordinator Charlie Strong said. "So we put it on the defense. We told them special teams and defense had to win this game."
James' 52-yard kickoff return to open the game set up Florida's first touchdown, a 2-yard basketball-like jump pass from Tebow to tight end Aaron Hernandez 4:45 in.
Tennessee's ensuing possession ended when Ryan Stamper recovered a fumble. Four plays later, Jonathan Phillips hit a 39-yard field goal to give the Gators a 10-0 lead — stunning a sold-out crowd into near silence.
"In the NFL, they say crowd noise is worth about seven points, and I think it's worth more in college," Meyer said. "We didn't get ourselves in bad field position on offense, and special teams play pretty much took the crowd out of it."
Everything that could go wrong for the Vols did, particularly in the first half.
Tennessee (1-2, 0-1) had three first-half turnovers, including two fumbles. It failed to score touchdowns twice after getting inside the Florida 20, and it gained just 138 yards despite holding an edge in time of possession, 17:14 to 12:46.
After James' punt return made it 17-0, an 11-play, 60-yard Vols drive ended when coach Phillip Fulmer decided to go for it on fourth and goal from the 1 and quarterback Jonathan Crompton was intercepted by freshman Janoris Jenkins in the end zone.
That led to a 12-play, 75-yard drive by the Gators, capped by a 40-yard field goal from Phillips that made it 20-0 lead with 4:43 remaining in the first half.
The Vols also fumbled on second and goal from the 3.
"We shot ourselves in the foot," said Crompton, who was 18-of-28 for 162 yards. "We should have won the ball game, in my opinion. We gave up 14 points in the red zone, and they scored seven points off turnovers. We fumbled on the first drive and that gave them three more. Those things change the whole momentum of the game."
Florida's offense generated just 243 yards. And Tebow was 8-of-15 for 96 yards but did have two touchdowns, including a 15-yarder to Percy Harvin with 4:29 remaining in the third quarter. Tebow said afterward a win is all that matters.
"It was a huge step for us," he said. "For the last 12 to 15 years, the winner of this game has had a lot of success in the SEC, and it gives you a lot of momentum. That surge going into SEC play, you can really feed off of and get focused on and make some big plays."
Antonya English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.