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Florida 35, Tennessee 29 // NOT HALF BAD

You might have thought it was safe to flip the channel, grab a snack, maybe even catch a quick second-half nap on the couch during Saturday's Florida-Tennessee game.

Sure, it was 35-6 when you dozed off.

But where else can one team build a five-touchdown lead, get shut out in the second half, give up nearly 500 passing yards and still pull out a 35-29 squeaker in front of an NCAA record crowd?

It wasn't anything near pretty, but when No. 4 Florida left Neyland Stadium it had a victory over No. 2 Tennessee. And that, thank you very much, is all that matters.

"Hey, let's put it this way," defensive back Lawrence Wright said. "A win's a win."

This was a particularly big one.

Riding on the much-ballyhooed outcome was a berth in the SEC title game and a possible shot at the national championship, not to mention plenty of Heisman Trophy votes for one of the game's quarterbacking golden boys: Tennessee's Peyton Manning or Florida's Danny Wuerffel.

The Gators left with the whole caboodle.

The victory gave Florida (3-0, 1-0) a clear path to its fifth consecutive SEC title game. No other team has represented the Eastern Division since the conference split in 1992, and the Gators have won three straight.

For Tennessee (2-1, 0-1) to climb back to the top of SEC Eastern, the Vols must win out and hope Florida loses at least two of its remaining SEC games.

That's not too likely, considering Florida's only SEC Eastern loss was 19 games ago, to Tennessee in 1992. The Gators have beaten the Vols four straight times.

"We've been down this road before, but I think this is a little harder because everybody was so geared up for this game," said Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer, whose team was locked out of playing for any championship last year by Florida's 62-37 come-from-behind win. "It's really disappointing."

A crowd of 107,608 jammed Neyland Stadium, but it was hardly the raucous atmosphere Vols fans expected. When the Gators scored two touchdowns in the first five minutes, it was as though someone had pushed a mute button.

Florida converted a startling fourth and 11 from the Tennessee 35 for its first score, a pass from Wuerffel to Reidel Anthony on a post pattern.

Less than two minutes later, after free safety Teako Brown intercepted Manning's first pass of the day, the Gators had another score, a 10-yard pass from Wuerffel to Terry Jackson, and a 14-0 lead.

Tennessee committed six first-half turnovers as Manning threw four interceptions, the same number he threw all last season, and the Vols fumbled twice.

"The defensive line put so much pressure on Manning, they get credit for all the turnovers," cornerback Anthone Lott said. "They made him hurry and overthrow it."

Three more touchdowns came in a hurry in the second quarter.

Within a two-minute span, Wuerffel threw a 6-yard touchdown to Ike Hilliard and a 15-yarder to Jacquez Green, and Lott returned a Jay Graham fumble 27 yards for a touchdown.

Florida 35, Tennessee 0.

"We were down; guys were surprised," Manning said. "But we never thought that we were out of it. We thought we had a chance to come back."

Tennessee struck with a 72-yard pass from Manning to Peerless Price and had two chances to score late in the first half after driving to the Florida 5-yard line and recovering a fumble at the Gators' 38. But Manning was 0-for-8 with two interceptions inside the 20 on the two possessions.

"The first half today felt like the second half last year," Price said.

Still, no one turns a first-half blowout into a crowd pleaser better than Florida and Tennessee.

Reminiscent of last year's 48-point rally by Florida, and coinciding collapse by Tennessee, the Volunteers found a groove late in the third quarter while the Gators offense struggled to convert first downs.

"Their defense really stymied us the second half and almost all of the second quarter," Florida coach Steve Spurrier said. "I guess Tennessee made some adjustments, but we didn't execute well. When the score got 35-0, our offense sort of got lazy."

Tennessee, meanwhile, connected on three touchdown passes, two to Andy McCullough and one to Eric Lane. But the last came with only 10 seconds left, and an onside kick attempt failed.

Manning, whose night got off to a horrific start with four interceptions and a fumble, finished with four touchdown passes and schools records for completions (37), attempts (65) and yardage (492).

"They got some momentum," said Wuerffel, whose numbers were more modest at 11-of-22 for 155 yards, but with no interceptions to his four touchdowns. "We were also trying to run out the clock, which we did in the fourth quarter."

Florida, which made only six first downs in the second half, got three of those on a fourth-quarter drive that took six minutes.

The Gators converted fourth and 1 at the Florida 46 to sustain the drive, which ended on a fourth-and-5 play that gained only 2 yards to the Vols' 27.

"In the second half we had trouble run blocking and pass blocking," Spurrier said. "We were trying to run the clock. Our offense had to stay on the field for us to have a chance to win the game.

"When you go for it on fourth down, you look really stupid if you don't make it. But it worked out for us."

Tennessee's Jay Graham, who rushed for 100 yards or more in all but one game last season, had just 31 yards on 12 carries. The Gators have posted a 38-1-1 record since 1990 when holding an opponent to fewer than 100 yards rushed. Tennessee had a net 9 yards rushing.

After losing to Florida last year, Tennessee went on to finish 11-1, including a Citrus Bowl victory over Ohio State and a No.

3 national finish. That's about the best the Vols have to look forward to this season.

"We have a little bit of time to lick our wounds," said Fulmer, whose team plays Ole Miss on Oct. 3. "A short period of time to pout. We have no choice but to keep our heads up and keep fighting."

Well grounded

In each of the past six games between FLorida and Tennessee, the team with the most rushing yardage has won the game.

Year UF UT Outcome

1991 114 49 UF, 35-18

1992 68 250 UT, 31-14

1993 156 76 UF, 41-34

1994 136 68 UF, 31-0

1995 203 124 UF, 62-37

1996 149 9 UF, 35-29

_ Staff writer Bob Harig contributed to this report.

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