They honored Tennessee’s 1998 national championship team at Neyland Stadium on Saturday night. And why wouldn’t they pick tonight of all nights? It’s been 20 years, after all, and the Tennessee-Florida game was almost always the game of the year in the SEC in the 1990’s. Remember, it was a 20-17 overtime win for the No. 6 Volunteers over No. 2 Florida that set Phillip Fulmer, Tee Martin, Peerless Price and company on their way to the first BCS crown.
But the fact that the ’98 Vols were in the house quickly became kind of a macabre joke, because Tennessee has never looked further away from a national title than it did on Saturday night.
Five turnovers did the Vols in, as unranked Florida cruised to a 47-21 win over unranked-and-going-to-stay-that-way-for-a-while Tennessee.
The mistakes started immediately for Tennessee. On the Vols’ first drive of the game, Jarrett Guarantano was sacked and fumbled, which Florida’s David Reese II recovered and returned to the UT 21. Felepie Franks put the Gators up 7-0 four plays later when he hit R.J. Raymond for a 1-yard toss.
On Tennessee’s next possession, Guarantano was intercepted by Luke Ancrum at his own 12, which he returned to the 7. Franks rushed in from one yard out two plays later, handing Florida a 14-0 lead.
Dear reader, this was just the beginning.
A safety handed Florida (3-1, 1-1 SEC) a 16-3 lead and, after the free kick, Franks found Freddie Swan for a 65-yard score, effectively ending the game at 23-3 with 10:42 to play in the second quarter.
Tennessee (2-2, 0-1 SEC) appeared to be in position to pull back within two scores when, on a 4th-and-1 from their own 45, Guarantano found a wide open tight end Austin Pope for a 51-yard connection. But as Pope leaped to avoid a tackle near the goal line, he lost control of the ball, which then rolled out of the end zone, turning a 1st-and-goal into a touchback.
Florida punted on the ensuing possession and Tennessee again moved into scoring territory, facing a 3rd-and-11 at the Florida 23, but a botched shotgun snap ended a second straight promising drive in a fumble.
Florida drove 66 yards at the close of the half to add a 25-yard Evan McPherson field goal to close the first half with a 26-3 lead.
Tennessee accepted the ball to open the second half, and Shawn Shamburger fumbled the return, handing Florida its fifth takeaway of the game. Jordan Scarlett punched in a 19-yard touchdown run one play later.
After a field goal, Guarantano tossed his second of two interceptions — and Tennessee’s sixth turnover — but Florida didn’t cash in this time.
The Gators didn’t need to, though. The score was 33-6 at that point, and Tennessee never pulled within 19 points in the second half.
Florida beat Tennessee for the 13th time in the pair’s last 14 games, and moved its all-time lead to 28-20. Florida is 26-7 against Tennessee since 1976.
Franks closed the night hitting 10-of-19 passes for 172 yards with three touchdowns, while Scarlett’s 11 carries for 77 yards led all runners.
Guarantano, meanwhile, completed 7-of-18 passes for 163 yards with no touchdowns and three turnovers.
It would be comforting to say the road gets easier for Tennessee, but it would be wrong. The Vols’ next three games: at No. 2 Georgia, at No. 9 Auburn and vs. No. 1 Alabama.