Getting over the hump that is the Florida Gators can be a cruel game, which was proven again on Saturday night in Knoxville.
Vols AD Danny White looked on in awe as Florida recovered the onside kick, while Tennessee looked to finish the job. The few moments that followed were one’s to remember.
Former Tennessee RB Arian Foster looked on in amazement, while former QB Josh Dobbs, who has beaten the Gators before, celebrated with former teammates after the game.
There’s no need to explain the reason for excitement, because beating the Gators has been hard to come by over the years. The joy across the faces of the current coaching staff said it all. This was the first hump they needed to get over.
It wasn’t long ago that Josh Heupel was being introduced as the head coach at Tennessee in the same building he held his postgame press conference.
Back then he talked about getting the Vols past certain pivot points in the program, tonight was one of those points. His players have bought into the system and culture he’s promoting, while pulling off wins against Pittsburgh and now Florida in the fourth quarter or overtime.
Who would’ve thought that 17 games ago Tennessee hadn’t played a single snap for Josh Heupel and the program was looking for an identity that didn’t exist.
A lot of former players returned tonight, which wasn’t the case in previous years. They felt a part of the environment, the staff at Tennessee made the players feel at home, which is something Josh Heupel emphasized he wanted to do when taking the job.
They couldn’t block out the outside noise this week, but Heupel told his team all week to embrace it and soak it all in. Not running from what they’ve accomplished is the key to further success.
Looking at a player like Hendon Hooker, it’s not hard to figure out what they are building.
Heupel called Hooker relentless after the game, numerous times, which he proved to be in clutch moments against the Gators.
The quarterback finished 22-of-28 for 349 yards passing and 2 touchdowns, while rushing for 112 yards and 1 touchdown.
What can you say about Hooker that hasn’t already been said at one point in his career. Hooker is a gamer, who doesn’t back down from a challenge.
Getting over this hump wasn’t easy, as most of you reading this article noticed in the final minute of the game.
But, finding a way to beat Florida will always be something this team can hang their hat on, because of how sparse the wins have been lately.
Anthony Richardson finished the night with 453 yards passing and 2 touchdowns, taking advantage of missed coverages from the Vols secondary.
It was a nice performance for the QB who has taken a beating in the news over the past few weeks.
The city of Knoxville was buzzing for a full week, knowing what this game meant to the team’s direction.
The smiles on the faces of players, coaches and family members made the moment even sweeter for the thousands of fans who stuck around after the game to give Heupel a standing ovation.
The Vols got past the first test, which is Florida. But to get the respect on the National stage, this team must go to LSU and play until the fourth quarter or hang with Alabama for sixty minutes.
Earning the respect from folks around the country is nice and goes a long way.
But winning for the fans and folks that stuck with you through the horrible pitfalls over the last six years was even better for future success.
As Tennessee baseball coach Tony Vitello was walking off the field Saturday night, he looked at me while smiling and said: “This is freaking awesome.”
It’s these types of moments that will stick with a fan base or athletic program for a long time to come.
Tonight was about getting past Florida. The trip to LSU will be about earning everyone’s respect.
I’d say this team is up for the challenge.