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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 Swamp isn’t what it used to be. Neither is Florida’s football program.

But the combination still became too much for Tennessee when redshirt freshman quarterback Feleipe Franks dropped back to make his final throw on a muggy Saturday afternoon in a stadium that wasn’t full.

The last-second, 63-yard touchdown pass to Tyrie Cleveland traveled almost 70 yards in the air before it knocked the life out of what was beginning to look like another Tennessee comeback.

Just like that, Tennessee fans could forget about winning in overtime and ending a six-game losing streak in The Swamp.

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Just like that, Florida had a 26-20 victory.

Just like that, the Vols had the makings of future nightmares.

Veteran Vols probably flashed back to their last trip to Gainesville when the Gators prevailed on another 63-yard touchdown pass, a fourth-down production from quarterback Will Grier to wide receiver Antonio Callaway.

This throw was even better, especially when you consider all the mishaps that had come before it. And it will hurt the Vols even more because of the momentum that had been building in the previous few minutes.

To say Franks saved his best throw for last wouldn’t begin to describe his turnaround. Over the course of the afternoon, I was convinced that Franks was the guy most likely to lose this game for the Gators and turn the rivalry topsy-turvy in Tennessee favor at this venue.

Near the end of the first half, Franks never saw a wide-open Florida receiver who could have skipped along for more than half the field into Tennessee’s end zone. He missed another receiver by 20 yards. He stumbled his way into a sack when he should have thrown the ball away. And even when Florida’s defense rode three interceptions into a 10-point, fourth-quarter lead, Franks’ clumsy handling of the game’s most important position still gave Tennessee hope.

He gave it more than hope late in the fourth quarter. He gave it a wonderful opportunity.

Franks’ twice deflected pass fell into the hands of Tennessee defensive back Rashaan Gaulden. That set up Tennessee’s last drive, one that was a bobbled pass from a potential game-winning touchdown.

Tennessee star running back John Kelly was only a few steps from the end zone when he dropped quarterback Quinten Dormady’s pass. When the Vols settled for a tying field goal, they set up Franks for his unlikely role as a hero and delivered a cruel, game-ending twist to a Tennessee defense that had held so well for so long.

But was it really that surprising?

You knew the Tennessee pass defense was terribly vulnerable. You saw that in the Vols’ come-from-behind, double-overtime victory over Georgia Tech in the season opener. You saw it again, just when you might have thought the Vols were headed for another overtime.

But when Cleveland outran Tennessee’s coverage and Franks struck from long distance, you couldn’t write this off as another UT defensive disaster. The Vols held Florida to 380 yards. Contrast that with their previous four regular-season games against teams from Power 5 conferences. Each one gained more than 600 yards.

“What’s wrong with the Tennessee defense?” wasn’t the most pertinent question on this afternoon. A better one: “What’s wrong with the Tennessee offense?”

Kelly had the costly drop. Dormady threw three interceptions against a defense that again lived up to its reputation as “DBU.”

You can overcome mistakes like that against other teams in other stadiums. But not against Florida.

Not in The Swamp.

John Adams is a senior columnist. He may be reached at 865-342-6284 or john.adams@knoxnews.com. Follow him at: Twitter.com/johnadamskns.

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