Tennessee Flips Switch, and Now, Its Fortunes in SEC East

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistSeptember 25, 2016

KNOXVILLE, TN - SEPTEMBER 24: LaTroy Lewis #4 of the Tennessee Volunteers celebrates with fans after the Vols defeated the Florida Gators 38-28 at Neyland Stadium on September 24, 2016 in Knoxville, Tennessee. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee sophomore wide receiver Jauan Jennings wouldn't take the bait in the wake of the Volunteers' 38-28 win over Florida, electing to mostly keep his mouth shut after all the chatter the Gators have unleashed all week.

His Vols did all the talking they needed to on the scoreboard Saturday, roaring back from a three-touchdown deficit to beat Florida with 38 unanswered points at Neyland Stadium to dry 11 years of Volunteers' tears. 

The alligator-skinned boots he slipped on before meeting with the media was a subtle jab.

"Yeah, we just went hunting," said Jennings, whose 67-yard touchdown reception from Joshua Dobbs put the Vols ahead to stay with 12:45 left in the game after trailing 21-0.

"Gator," he added with a smile as he exited the press room.

Indeed, the Vols poached their foes in stunning fashion, finally playing like the SEC East favorites. With the resounding, nationally televised exclamation mark, they proclaimed themselves the divisional front-runner. 

There's a ton of football to be played, but the only other threat to win the division is a Georgia team that was dismissed soundly by Ole Miss earlier Saturday, 45-14. UT must travel to Athens next week to take on UGA, so the Vols can't celebrate for long.

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They took a moment to reflect on the importance of the moment, though.

KNOXVILLE, TN - SEPTEMBER 24: Head coach Butch Jones of the Tennessee Volunteers celebrates with his son Alex Jones #39 after the Vols defeated the Florida Gators 38-28 at Neyland Stadium on September 24, 2016 in Knoxville, Tennessee. (Photo by Joe Robbin
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

"We all said we were going to get Tennessee back to the top, and I feel like today was a big steppingstone to get Tennessee back to the top," said outside linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin, who tried to play with an injured shoulder but couldn't stay on the field for long.

"I feel like this win goes back to my freshman year—that goal that we set for each other."

For a long time, it looked like the Vols would fail against their bitter rivals yet again.

After UF drove down the field at will with a perfect deep ball from backup quarterback Austin Appleby to Antonio Callaway to set up a game-opening touchdown, Callaway fumbled a UT punt at his 2-yard line to set up the Vols.

They went four-and-out. Then two other trips to the red zone during a forgettable first half yielded just three points. Bobbled passes and botched opportunities haunted a team that looked like it was playing tight.

Throughout the knee-jerk-reaction world of social media—a chorus of "Fire Butch" blared. In Neyland Stadium, it wasn't much different. They booed the Vols as they trotted off the field at halftime.

Those jeers later turned to resounding cheers as Tennessee began to play like the program Jones has been trying to build for four long years. The torrid second half also led to some serious postgame celebrations:

A defense that didn't have Reeves-Maybin, star cornerback Cameron Sutton or starting middle linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. dominated, forcing five three-and-out series and getting an interception on a crucial six-drive, second-half stretch that allowed UT to come back.

Florida had eight yards in the entire third quarter.

Dobbs—a polarizing quarterback whom many UT fans have skewered for his inability to throw the ball consistently downfield—did what he does: show up huge in important games. He became the first UT quarterback since Tyler Bray in 2012 to throw for four touchdown passes in a game.

He also ran for one, finishing with 399 total yards. 

With his team on the mat, he delivered a 23-yard scoring strike to Jalen Hurd, a 20-yard floating beauty over the defense to Ethan Wolf, the 67-yarder to Jennings and a 42-yard crossing pattern catch-and-run to Josh Malone.

Both lines of scrimmage turned things around in the second half.

KNOXVILLE, TN - SEPTEMBER 24: Joshua Dobbs #11 of the Tennessee Volunteers looks to pass against the Florida Gators in the first quarter at Neyland Stadium on September 24, 2016 in Knoxville, Tennessee. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Everybody wearing orange and white in the stands may have panicked, but the Vols didn't. Junior running back Alvin Kamara alluded to pregame conversations he had with a couple of Vols legends who helped him focus on finishing.

"Before the game, guys like Al Wilson and Jamal Lewis, they came up to me and Jalen [Reeves-Maybin], and his message was to keep the team calm, stay calm, stay in the game," Kamara said. "I felt like that kept resonating in my head the whole game; we've got to stay calm.

"We were scoring, we were getting hot, and I kept going to the defense and offense and just saying, 'We've got more plays to make. Let's keep going, keep pounding.' I think we showed it. We kept working, and we got the results we wanted."

Unlike last year, the Vols never got conservative once they had a lead. Being down by so much perhaps helped them focus. And they had a switch-flipping 30 minutes of football that could make all the difference the rest of the season.

It was reminiscent of 2015's Georgia game that saw the Bulldogs jump ahead 24-3 on the downtrodden Vols before they woke up, won the game and ripped off a season-saving stretch following a close loss to Alabama.

But this was different simply because this was against Florida.

KNOXVILLE, TN - SEPTEMBER 24: Jauan Jennings #15 of the Tennessee Volunteers runs into the end zone with a 67-yard touchdown reception against the Florida Gators in the fourth quarter at Neyland Stadium on September 24, 2016 in Knoxville, Tennessee. Tenne
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The Gators are a team that pummeled the Vols for many years before twisting the knife the past few seasons by winning with a psychological advantage. Tennessee invented ways to lose, further jading its fans with tantalizing late-game leads it squandered away.

That didn't happen Saturday, and perhaps that's the biggest reason Vols fans everywhere should be thrilled about the prospects of the rest of the season. UT charged back, when nobody thought it could.

Jones said: "I hope you guys understand the resolve and the resiliency of this football team…" before scolding the media for referring to Saturday as a "must-win."

"We are building something special here with character and competitiveness. It's just one game. We've got to go on the road next week. The resolve of these kids, with all the expectations on this football game and you go down at halftime and to have that second-half performance. If you don't have character in your football program, that does not happen."

This win has to make the Vols the favorites to represent the East in the SEC Championship Game for the first time since 2007. As Reeves-Maybin alluded to, Saturday was a huge step, but there are bigger ones to take.

This is the first test in a four-game gauntlet that includes road games at Georgia and Texas A&M before a home tilt with Alabama. But, for the first time in a while, UT was the aggressor. In the second half, it was the hunter.

Florida started the talk. Tennessee ended it.

"I told the team before we came to the Vol Walk; I told them, when you got a dude drowning, you stick the hose in their mouth," senior defensive tackle Danny O'Brien said. "I told them we've got to go out and take that. Ain't nobody going to give us nothing. So, we went out and took it, and we put the hose in their mouth at the end."

     

Quotes and information gathered firsthand unless otherwise noted. Recruiting information gathered from 247Sports unless otherwise noted.

Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee lead writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.