Florida football score, takeaways: Gators beat Tennessee, win SEC East for first time since 2016

By Adam Silverstein
December 5, 2020
Florida football score, takeaways: Gators beat Tennessee, win SEC East for first time since 2016
Football

Image Credit: GatorsFB / Twitter

It may not have been as impressive as some would have liked, but the No. 6 Florida Gators took care of business once again Saturday afternoon, putting away the rival Tennessee Volunteers 31-19 at Neyland Stadium. With the victory, Florida (8-1) clinched the SEC East and will head to the SEC Championship Game for the first time since 2016.

“Winning the SEC East championship in this year, the hardest year in the history of this league — we’re going to play 10 conference games, regular-season conference games. To win our division is pretty special and shows a lot of where our teams at,” head coach Dan Mullen said after the game.

He later added: “The goal is to win the East because thats’ what we can control coming into the season. … We were able to do that. So now we have the opportunity to control being SEC champions. That’s the next step. So we got to start preparing for that two weeks from today.”

Tennessee (2-6) was largely ineffective and did the majority of its scoring in garbage time when Mullen chose to play conservatively. More on that in a minute. The Gators put up 96% of its yardage through the air as redshirt senior quarterback Kyle Trask again proved why he is the favorite for the 2020 Heisman Trophy.

What went down on Saturday in Knoxville, Tennessee? Let’s look at the biggest takeaways as Florida won its 15th game in the last 16 meetings against Tennessee.

1. Trask is terrific again: It’s tough to describe Trask’s play each week without running out of adjectives. On a day where the Gators were unable to get anything going on the ground, Trask was basically the entire offense. He completed 35 of 49 passes for 433 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. In doing so, he continued to make program history while simultaneously flirting with FBS record books.

Trask ended the game with 38 passing touchdowns, the second-most for a Florida quarterback in a single season behind Danny Wuerffel’s 39 in 1996. Not only does Trask have at least three more games to eclipse that total, his have come in just nine games — all against SEC competition. Those 38 passing scores are also the third-most through nine games in FBS history, just two behind leader Andre Ware (40). Trask also became the first Gators QB to pass for 400+ yards three times in a single season.

There will be competition for Trask when Heisman voting comes rolling around, but no player in the nation — other than Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith, who has never been considered a top candidate — has been as consistent and dominant week to week. Trask’s statistics are definitively better than his peers at the position, and he has two more games to enhance them before voting takes place.

2. Playmakers are everywhere: While Trask has been dominant, he also has plenty of help. Not only did nine players catch passes with 10 targeted in the game — not an unusual statistic this season for Florida’s offense — Trask had two 100-yard receivers and threw touchdowns to three different players. Senior WR Kadarius Toney had career-highs of eight receptions and 108 yards plus a touchdown, while junior tight end Kyle Pitts had a team-high 128 yards on seven catches, becoming the first Gators TE with three 100+ yard games in his career. Senior WR Trevon Grimes scored two touchdowns and redshirt sophomore WR Jacob Copeland grabbed another with the two combining for 112 yards.

3. The offense was far from mistake-free: Despite the success of Florida’s playmakers, the offense left points all over the field on Saturday. The Gators went three-and-out on consecutive possessions in the third quarter for the first time this season, receivers dropped numerous passes, Trask missed a couple open receivers and made a couple errant throws, and redshirt senior right tackle Jean Delance struggled all day in pass protection.

All of that is not to mention a horrendous performance on the ground. The Gators’ running backs totaled 7 yards on 11 carries. In total, including WR reverses and QB sacks, Florida finished with 19 yards rushing on 17 attempts. It would appear impossible for UF to operate with 95.7% of its yardage coming from the passing game as the proportion was on Saturday. Florida may be able to beat Tennessee that way, but what about when it faces the top-ranked team in the nation two weeks from now?

“We gotta be better running the ball. We gotta be more physical up front,” Mullen said. “… I don’t know if there’s a game this year we left more points on the field than we did tonight. I’m really disappointed we left all those points on the field offensively. … To score 31 points, that was disappointing for me with the opportunities we had to score a lot more points during this game.”

4. Mullen conservative to a fault, again: Mullen can be disappointed with those 31 points all he wants, but it is not only the players to blame for leaving points on the board. Three times Mullen opted to play unnecessarily conservative on Saturday. The first came on the Gators’ opening series, which moved 63 yards and ended with Mullen having sophomore kicker Evan McPherson knock in a 30-yard field goal rather than go for it on fourth-and-3. The next series, Florida faced fourth-and-5 on the Tennessee 41 after a 49-yard drive, and Mullen decided to punt. The former was a questionable decision; the latter is at least understandable early in a road game, though the 20-20 result was that first touchdown drive for the Vols, which gave them an early 7-3 lead on the Gators.

The true head-scratcher came in the fourth quarter. Up 24-7 but struggling to get the offense going, Trask led Florida on an incredibly impressive touchdown drive. he completed six straight passes — five for first downs, the last for a score – and saw the Gators jump ahead 31-7. The Vols answered with their second long scoring drive and then tried an onside kick that Florida recovered at the UT 43 with 5:33 to play. In other words, a short field and with plenty of time left on the clock and UF leading by less than three touchdowns.

Rather than attempt to score again given the opportune situation, Mullen was obtusely conservative. Once Trask threw for a first down, Mullen ran three times — remember, the running game did absolutely nothing all day — including on third-and-9 from the Tennessee 31. Not only could the Gators and Trask have used the points for optics — say what you will but the Heisman and CFP are voted on by humans – but it would have been nice to build confidence and work out some kinks that failed earlier in the game. Instead, Florida failed and punted, and Tennessee responded with its third touchdown as it outscored the visitors 12-7 in the fourth quarter.

“It shows where the program is at when we’re 31-7 when cleanup time starts and we kind of just cleanup the game to finish it out and say it’s not a great game by us or not one of our great performances. It shows where we’re at as a program, which says a lot,” Mullen said.

That’s partially true. What’s also true is that the Gators beat one of the worst teams in the SEC by 12 points. Blame the second-string defense and some offensive miscues if you want, but Florida had an opportunity to put the game away definitively and decisively in a perfect situation and chose to rest on those 31 points that Mullen admitted were too few for the Gators.

5. Jekyll and Hyde defense rears its head again: Florida managed six sacks and eight tackles for loss on Saturday, frequently getting to the quarterback and into the offensive backfield to cause disruption. But most of the Gators’ 85 penalty yards on eight miscues came from that side of the ball with three roughing the passer penalties called — two of them on boneheaded decisions. Florida did hold Tennessee to 4 of 15 on third down but allowed 3 of 4 fourth-down tries to be converted.

All three of the Vols’ touchdown drives came on extended series that began with UT backed up inside its 10-yard line: 11 plays for 96 yards, 13 plays for 94 yards and 13 plays for 96 yards. Sure, two of those came in garbage time with the game clearly in hand for UF, but that does not necessarily make it any better when a team like the Gators should be coached up to the level that they take care of business no matter who is in the game.

“We got to finish it there when we get into the cleanup time at the end of the game,” Mullen said. “We start subbing guys in, they got to slam the door and not give up the two garbage time touchdowns they scored in the end.”

6. Odds and ends: Trask punted for the first time in his career; the pooch kick landed perfectly at the Tennessee 4-yard line … Florida improved to 30-20 all-time against Tennessee with wins in 15 of the last 16 meetings … the Gators are 7-1 in the last eight games played in Neyland … UF has outscored UT 112-43 in Mullen’s three seasons … this was the first time the Gators and Vols played in December since 2001 and the first time they did so in Knoxville since 1928 … Florida is 21-1 when scoring first, 25-1 when leading after the third quarter, 19-0 when allowing 20 points or fewer and 7-6 when being outrushed by an opponent under Mullen … UF is now 23-2 against unranked teams … Mullen’s program-best start as a coach improved to 29-6 (.829) … Florida has scored 24+ points in 24 of its last 26 games and 31+ points in 11 straight games … the Gators have 151 offensive TDs in 35 games under Mullen after scoring 93 in 38 games from 2015-17 … UF has scored in 407 consecutive games, an NCAA record

7. What’s next? Florida will conclude its regular season on Saturday when it hosts LSU, a game moved to Dec. 12 from earlier in the 2020 campaign. The Gators are 33-30-3 all-time against the Tigers, but UF is just 3-7 vs. LSU since 2010, 2-3 in The Swamp.

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