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What we know about Florida after Gators’ win over Tennessee

UF looks a little different from last year, but the bottom line after one month: These Gators have a championship-level offense but must improve on defense.
Emory Jones had arguably his best game with the Gators on Saturday against Tennessee.
Emory Jones had arguably his best game with the Gators on Saturday against Tennessee. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]
Published Sep. 26
Updated Sep. 26

GAINESVILLE — After No. 11 Florida finished the season’s first month with Saturday night’s convincing 38-14 win over Tennessee, we have a large-enough sample size to see who these Gators are and what they can be.

Though the details are different, the bottom line looks the same as it did last year: UF (3-1, 1-1 SEC) has a championship-level offense that must overcome defensive liabilities.

Quarterback Emory Jones built on a strong showing against Alabama the week before with the best start of his career. He was 21-of-27 for 209 yards and two touchdowns, and led the Gators in rushing with 15 carries for a career-high 144 yards. That made him the first UF quarterback to pass for 200 yards and rush for 100 in the same game since Tim Tebow against Florida State in 2009.

Jones doesn’t have the highlight reel of redshirt freshman Anthony Richardson, who didn’t play as he recovers from a tightened hamstring. But Jones kept making the little plays that win games: check-downs, timely scrambles and quick passes to avoid blitzes.

“I think you see him really settling down,” coach Dan Mullen said. “You’re starting to see his confidence a little more.”

Emory Jones had a career rushing night Saturday against the Volunteers.
Emory Jones had a career rushing night Saturday against the Volunteers. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]

That really could be seen on third and fourth downs, where Jones was 7-of-8 with two rushing conversions. He spread his completions among nine receivers and keyed a run game that finished with 283 yards, UF’s most in an SEC game since facing South Carolina in 2018.

Jones’ performance was especially encouraging because of the improvement it showed. When Jones was merely fine through the first two vanilla games, wins over Florida Atlantic and USF, Mullen said the quarterback was adjusting as a starter, just as he was adjusting to his quarterback as a play caller. If Saturday night was any indication, they’ve figured things out.

“They’re just scratching the surface with Emory,” running back Dameon Pierce said. “He’s just getting comfortable out there, man.”

One month into the season, the offense looks steady and efficient enough to lead the Gators back to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game.

“The sky’s the limit, not only as an offense but the team in general,” Pierce said.

Florida running back Dameon Pierce was part of a strong Gators run game Satuday.
Florida running back Dameon Pierce was part of a strong Gators run game Satuday. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]

If the defense is good enough to help the Gators soar.

The good news from Saturday — and all September — is that UF’s defense is much better than last year’s historically bad one. Lineman Zachary Carter (Hillsborough High) had another sack. End Brenton Cox had 2½ tackles for loss. Mullen said the defense played “excellent” and adjusted well, leading to a second-half shutout of the Volunteers (2-2, 0-1).

But the defense still had early miscues that have become too common and, if they continue, threaten to derail the Gators’ championship hopes, just like last year.

A week after missed tackles put the Gators in a hole too deep for them to climb out of against Alabama, they missed more. Specifically, linebacker Amari Burney (Calvary Christian) and safety Rashad Torrence whiffed on Tiyon Evans’ 47-yard catch-and-run touchdown for the Volunteers.

Tennessee’s next score came on a busted coverage that was an unwelcome flashback to the dreadful 2020 secondary. Safety Mordecai McDaniel inched forward in coverage only to get beaten deep on a 75-yard lob.

It could have been worse. Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker sailed a pass over wide open Jacob Warren that probably would have resulted in a score. UF’s soft coverage at the end of the half allowed the Volunteers to get into field goal range (the kick drifted wide right). Tennessee was at the UF 30-yard line in the second half but dropped a would-be fourth down conversion.

The absence of All-SEC cornerback Kaiir Elam didn’t help UF. But given the secondary’s shaky performance over the last season and a half, the defense has issues that go beyond its best player’s right knee.

If that sounds like nitpicking a 16th consecutive win over a rival, that’s the reflection of the high expectations these Gators have earned through the first month — and a reminder of what happened last year.

Gator bits

• Receiver Trent Whittemore’s throw to Kemore Gamble in the third quarter was the first UF passing touchdown by a nonquarterback since receiver Kadarius Toney hit Moral Stephens for the go-ahead score at Mississippi State three years ago. Mullen said it was the same play, called Kodak.

• Mullen said Richardson was available to play but isn’t 100 percent healthy. He expects Richardson to be a full participant starting with Monday’s practice.

• Elam will be probable for next weekend’s game at Kentucky.

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

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