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Knoxville was rocking, Neyland Stadium was shaking, and the Vols had just foiled a fake Gator punt and taken over at the UF 47. With a seven point lead and two wide receivers that the Gators had been unable to cover all night, things were finally looking up for Derek Dooley’s star crossed Volunteers. After eight long years, the Doolaid had never tasted sweeter.
The Voltanic struck an iceberg.
Tyler Bray was called for intentional grounding, effectively ending the drive before it started.
The Vols punted into the end zone, Muschamp dodged any consequences from the fake punt, and Trey Burton lined up under center.
A run play was coming, right?
Everyone on earth knows that Trey Burton rarely, if ever, passes the football.
In fact, Burton has completed eight passes in three years as a Gator quarterback and he’s never thrown a touchdown pass. On the other hand, he’s run the ball 112 times in the past three years.
Indeed, in the first quarter Burton scored from 14 yards out on a quarterback keeper. He was untouched off left end. So if you were playing the percentages you would be thinking, Trey Burton is going to run the football here on first down from the Gator twenty. Maybe you could forgive the Vol defense if Burton inexplicably threw the football for the ninth time in his Gator career. After all, that would be a new wrinkle, an unexpected play call. Instead Trey Burton took the ball off right tackle, embarrassed Vol defender Marsalis Teague — who now has provided tape to every SEC fan of what they would look like trying to make an open field tackle in front of over 100,000 people — and raced eighty yards for the tie score.
Asked to explain how a play like that could happen, Dooley said, “It was just a bad play. I don’t know any other way to say it.”
Here’s another way to say it, can you imagine a Nick Saban defense ever allowing that play to happen?
Neither can you.
The Vols hired Nick Saban’s linebackers coach, Sal Sunseri, and expected him to bring Saban’s attention to detail with him. Unfortunately for the Vols coaching greatness doesn’t pass via osmosis. If it did, William Faulkner’s typist would have won the Nobel Prize too.
After Burton’s inexplicable eighty yard romp down the sideline, it was 20-20 and the Vols were wobbly.
But decent teams can take a punch, right?
Decent teams can rebound when confronted by adversity. Especially when you’re playing at home and especially when there are over 100,000 fans aching to root you on to victory and especially when you’re now playing for the same coach for a third year in a row. Neyland Stadium was willing to go crazy over any positive outcome, any positive play. Instead, the Vols laid down, curled up in the fetal position like Smokey when his owner took away his bone.
Over the final 18 minutes of the game the Florida Gators would tally 305 yards to the Vols 35.
305 to 35!
That’s almost statistically impossible.
The only way to explain this is if one team quits, fails to match the intensity of the opposing team, relents in the face of adversity.
Which the Vols did.
After the game a shellshocked Dooley — looking like the Germans on the evening after D-Day — stared over his play chart with a dazed look on his face, made notations on his copy of the game statistics. All was silent for over a minute in the post-game press conference as everyone watched Dooley stare at the statistical evidence of the latest biggest loss of his UT coaching career. “We just let it slip away,” Dooley said, “The sky is not going to fall tomorrow.”
Which is fortunate.
Because if the sky did fall, it would avoid every Florida Gator player, coach, and fan.
And crush every Vol player, coach, and fan.
“We’re making progress,” Dooley said, pausing to grimace, “Disappointing.”
Asked if his team quit, as the stats would certainly reflect that they had, Dooley demurred, “I don’t want to get into the giving up deal.”
Tyler Bray was more succinct when he was asked what happened, “We just kind of fell apart,” he said.
Optimists will point out that this was just one defeat, that there are still nine games left in the season and the Vols can still fight their way to respectability. Realists will be harsher. Derek Dooley has now coached three seasons at Tennessee and his coaching record is 13-15 in those games. Dooley is now 1-8 in his last nine SEC games, the lone win coming in overtime against Vanderbilt. Last year the Vols were whipped in Gainesville, losing 33-23. But this year Justin Hunter was back. Bray was back. And the Vols were at home. Hell, Gator fans even returned 4,000 seats, meaning that there were fewer Gator fans in Neyland Stadium than at any time since the 1980’s. The Volunteers were prepared to catapault themselves back into the national football conversation. All day Vol fans celebrated the arrival of ESPN’s Gameday and argued that tonight would be the national unveiling. This year the Vols were favored in Las Vegas, they were the more talented team, hell, I was even drinking the Dool-Aid predicting a 45-10 victory.
The gap between the teams was negligible. With a young quarterback and no proven offensive weapons, now was the time for Dooley, Bray, Hunter, and Cordarrelle Patterson to extract their revenge.
Only they didn’t.
The Vols lost by 17 points giving up 555 yards in the process.
Even worse than last year.
This was not a confidence building performance.
It was the kind of performance that makes it likely that this will be the last season Derek Dooley is coaching at Tennessee. If Dooley’s seat was hot before this game, now it’s on fire.
Sure, the Vols could rebound from this loss.
But alien life forms could land on the planet and make us their slaves as well. The Volunteer team that quit on Derek Dooley on Saturday is not keeping his job.
Even when Vegas thinks otherwise, there are just three certainties in life: death, taxes, and Florida Gator wins over the Vols in September.
After the game Gator players celebrated in the end zone closest to UT’s locker room, climbing into the seats and posing alongside a sign held aloft by Gator fans, celebrating their eighth consecutive win over the once mighty Volunteers.
“Rocky Bottom,” the sign read.
On a dark night in Knoxville, it was hard to argue with the sign’s conclusion.