CLOSE

Tennessee Vols leave The Swamp winless — again — during their game against Florida on Sept. 16. The Vols have not won in Gainesville since 2003.
Calvin Mattheis, Caitlin McMekin, Ayrika Whitney/Knoxville News-Sentinel

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The Tennessee Volunteers don’t quit, ever, so it’s probably good for the Florida Gators that they got the Vols with no time left Saturday in a deliriously loud place called The Swamp — Feleipe Franks heaving it 63 yards for a touchdown at the buzzer to Tyrie Cleveland, who somehow got behind UT safety Micah Abernathy.

The wildest of wild finishes between these rivals and the explosion of noise that greeted the final play — which won it 26-20 for the No. 25 Gators, no extra point needed or even possible in that mass of bodies — will overshadow the fact that this was a mediocre overall performance for the No. 23 Vols. That word also applies to this UT program in its fifth season under Butch Jones.

And there are no family-friendly words for Jones’ second-half coaching Saturday at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. There are no excuses, there isn’t a catch phrase to smooth this over and there is not a single person who wants to hear how the Vols (2-1) just played “three games in 13 days” — not when they played Indiana State a week ago and had the normal amount of time to prepare for this game.

No, this could be a breaking point for Jones. And for his defensive coordinator, Bob Shoop, whose defense actually did fine for most of the day against what has to be one of the worst offenses in college football right now. Giving up that play at the end is absolutely senseless. Yes, there was a slim chance Franks could complete a pass long enough to set up a long field-goal try, but you absolutely can’t let receivers get free deep.

Autoplay

Show Thumbnails

Show Captions

This is a Florida team, missing its top receiver and top rusher among nine suspended players, that now has two offensive touchdowns in two games. This is a Florida coach, Jim McElwain, who was thought by many to have jumped the shark in Gainesville (that’s a reference to Fonzie jumping over a shark on water skis in a 1977 episode of “Happy Days,” a sure sign that he and the show were on the decline — what did you think I meant?)

McElwain was booed, correctly, for botching the clock management late and requiring that Hail Mary when the Gators had time to try to work for a field goal. He then met his match in late-game coaching botchery.

“When we allowed the quarterback to flush the pocket, anything can happen,” said Jones, which is true when you don’t protect your back side.

And, again, it’s a shame for the Vols because they do not quit. Just as in the season opener against Georgia Tech, a dismal loss turned double-overtime win, they stacked huge plays late to give themselves a chance. Witness Justin Martin’s marathon sprint to force a fumble from behind — Tennessee has a knack for that one — when it looked like Florida freshman Malik Davis was going to run in a 74-yard touchdown to make it 20-3 and put the game away.

Witness UT emotional leader John Kelly’s beastly 34-yard touchdown run on the ensuing drive to make it 13-10 and set up the possibility of another dramatic finish in this rivalry (though his ill-timed Gator chomp drew a taunting penalty and set the Gators up with a short field to respond with their first touchdown of the season).

Witness Quinten Dormady’s perfect touchdown loft to Ethan Wolf from 28 yards away with 4:43 left, answering the Gators with a 30-second scoring drive the Vols needed badly. Witness Rashaan Gaulden’s diving interception on a tipped pass on the next possession, setting up the Vols to go in for the win.

And witness all the stupid things that went wrong that didn’t have to go wrong, serving to indict Jones again. That winning drive stalled at the Florida 9 (three straight incompletions!), so Aaron Medley tied it with a field goal with 50 seconds left, avoiding a fourth miss on the day (one for him, two for freshman Brent Cimaglia) and a lot of questions for Jones about how he handled the kicking competition during camp.

There are more pressing issues here. Jones might get into the Bad Coaching Hall of Fame just on the strength of the Vols’ sequence from the Florida 1 in the third quarter — near interception, false start, incomplete pass, screen pass for nothing, interception.

Yeah, Larry Scott is the Vols’ first-year play caller but this offense is Jones’ baby, and he has to pipe in at some point and mention that Kelly (141 rushing yards, 96 receiving yards) can probably get a yard. Later, I would have liked to have seen the Vols’ trash-can guy jump on the headset and scream at Scott and Jones that a Dormady keeper isn’t getting it done on third-and-5 from the Florida 26 (Medley then missed from 44).

The SEC East is wide open, folks, and the Vols nearly overcame all of that and more to grab a crucial road win. They nearly won at Florida for the first time since 2003. They nearly had us all talking again about the intangibles that Jones instills, rather than the decisions he flubs on game day.

And then came Franks to Cleveland. No excuses, no cute sayings and there will be no public mercy for Jones in the week ahead. No laugh track available, either.

Contact Joe Rexrode at jrexrode@tennessean.com and follow him on Twitter @joerexrode.

  • Tennessee Vols leave The Swamp winless -- again

    Tennessee Vols leave The Swamp winless — again

  • Tennessee Vols walk up to The Swamp before their game against Florida

    Tennessee Vols walk up to The Swamp before their game against Florida

  • Butch Jones: Berry questionable to play Florida

    Butch Jones: Berry questionable to play Florida

  • UT police will send 24 officers to Florida after Irma

    UT police will send 24 officers to Florida after Irma

  • Scenes from Tennessee Vols football practice Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017

    Scenes from Tennessee Vols football practice Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017

  • Ethan Wolf: Vols take confidence, momentum into Florida game

    Ethan Wolf: Vols take confidence, momentum into Florida game

  • Tennessee Vols football report

    Tennessee Vols football report

  • Butch Jones: We have a lot of work to do

    Butch Jones: We have a lot of work to do