GAINESVILLE, Fla. — It took every minute of regulation for Florida’s offense to wake up.
It wasn’t pretty, but the 24th-ranked Gators beat No. 23 Tennessee at home on Saturday, 26-20.
To call the game a battle of wills would be an overstatement.
Was it a struggle of two top-25 teams? Sure. The Gators and Volunteers were ranked — on paper. And it certainly was a struggle to see two teams fail to execute so often offensively. The red zone proved to be a place where dreams went to die.
The first time anyone found the end zone was on a pick-six by Florida freshman cornerback CJ Henderson early in the fourth quarter. It was the third interception Tennessee quarterback Quinten Dormady threw in the game and his fifth turnover in two weeks.
Tennessee’s offense had plenty of shots but ultimately came up empty. Every time the Vols entered the red zone, they either were pushed back by the defense, missed a field goal or turned the football over. Even star running back John Kelly, who had more than 220 total yards of offense, failed when it mattered most, dropping a sure touchdown with less than a minute remaining.
That’s not to say that Florida was much better.
Gators coach Jim McElwain, who earned his stripes as an offensive coordinator, was the picture of frustration during the game. He paced the sidelines constantly, waving his arms and speaking into his headset in search of answers that wouldn’t come.
The good news — other than a solid effort by the defense — was that he avoided starting the season 0-2, which the Gators hadn’t done since 1971. The bad news was that his offense showed hardly any signs of life even after moving coordinator Doug Nussmeier from the coaches’ box to the field to call plays.
It looked for a while as if Florida would continue its offensive touchdown drought, which dated back to the fourth quarter of last season’s bowl game, after Malik Davis sprinted more than 70 yards only to have the ball knocked out from behind for a fumble just 2 yards before reaching the end zone. Thankfully for him, Franks stepped in and found Brandon Powell for a 5-yard touchdown pass with 5:13 remaining in the fourth quarter to break the streak.
Franks wasn’t stellar overall, completing 18 of 28 passes for 212 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, but he did enough. The running game, meanwhile, picked up the pace for a respectable 168 yards.
If anything, the mediocre performance should give hope to the rest of the SEC East.
Florida, which has won back-to-back division titles, doesn’t appear to have the same caliber of offense as either Georgia or South Carolina, both of which have young talent at the quarterback position in Jake Fromm and Jake Bentley, respectively.