With Tennessee over the Florida hump, Vols now face the big question: What's next?
It took them 12 years, but the Vols finally conquered the Gators; they better have their sights set higher
Tennessee waited 12 years for this. Watching the celebration unfold in the second half Saturday, it seemed like 112.
It was a football circus featuring a clowning of Florida. It was a flask strapped to your leg. It was Neyland Stadium in full throttle. It was kissing your date and kissing goodbye to a streak so insidious it made grown men and women cry.
It was Tennessee 38, Florida 28.
In 30 magical second-half minutes, something awoke in a long-suffering program. Tennessee went from dropping passes to dropping the hammer. The Vols went from doubting themselves to doubling down.
They came back from an 18-point halftime deficit to reach heights that hadn't been dreamed about in Knoxville for years. In the end, Tennessee beating Florida was as much psychological as it was physical.
The Vols needed this game to rid themselves of that 800-pound gorilla in every meeting room, in every practice, in every game.
The Vols needed this because they had been beaten in every way imaginable these past 11 years. Comebacks. Humiliations. Three of the losses came by one point, including each of the last two seasons. The results became so routine that Gators cornerbacks Quincy Wilson and Jalen Tabor guaranteed a win Saturday.
It was orange joy uninterrupted at the end of a streak that almost looked like it was going to last forever. It did last exactly 3,626-and-a-half days, which was long enough for Tennessee, which faced a 21-3 deficit at the end of the second quarter.
It was Josh Dobbs throwing for 235 yards and four touchdowns in the second half. It was Florida folding in the final 30 minutes as quickly as it built a three-touchdown lead in the first half.
It was OK to brag from Knoxville to Pigeon Forge. Take another swig of Yee Haw beer, a craft brew I was introduced to a couple weeks ago in Bristol following a game staged at a racetrack. That's OK, too.
That was a NASCAR one-off, a nonconference game that set the all-time college football attendance record. That night, Tennessee lived up to the hype. On Saturday, Vols everywhere just lived it up.
"What could you not possibly love about this sport?" Verne Lundquist said as the CBS cameras panned over to Vols coach Butch Jones, who was directing the Tennessee band. That was OK, too.
The Vols came into the game with the nation's third-longest winning streak (nine games). The Vols had a perfect student-athlete at quarterback. The Vols had the most returning starters and most talent in the SEC East.
But until this happened -- pummeling the Gators -- none of it really meant much. When Tennessee overwhelmed Florida with 38 straight points -- 35 consecutive in the second half -- a party more than a decade in the planning was waiting in the stands, on the streets, in the bars, into next week and beyond.
Basically, Tennessee needed to finally beat Florida to move on with its life. Jones was a fine, young coach and all, but when he called timeout with five seconds to play, he acknowledged how special the moment was.
Now everything seems possible at Tennessee, including winning the East Division that seemed to be grandfathered to it July. Looking ahead to Oct. 15, the Vols play the first of what they hope will be two games against Alabama.
Isn't it obvious, or do you have to be hit over the head with a Yee Haw? That second meeting would be in the SEC title game.
The script flipped suddenly and dramatically. A Florida defense that was the last remaining not to give up a touchdown pass gave up four in a dizzying 18 minutes.
Tennessee pass catchers were running so free in the second half it looked like they'd come off the sidelines illegally. Dobbs, who started 1 for 8 (with five drops by his teammates), finished 15 of 24.
Yes, the Vols now look, feel and act like the SEC East favorites. The Gators, defending division champs, look like they need help. Lots of it. Tennessee has to lose twice in the conference for Florida even to have a chance. That doesn't seem likely at the moment, though Texas A&M is on Tennessee's slate.
Saturday's game was a barrier that needed to be knocked down, a flat that needed to be fixed, a mental hurdle that had to be cleared.
Yo, Quincy Wilson: We all just saw a duck pull a truck.
When the result was finally official before the usual 102,000-plus fanatics at Neyland Stadium, the Vols drank it up and drank it in. They wallowed in it. Security folks surrounded the goalposts, but their hearts weren't in it. They were merely protecting a university investment.
The payoff had already come. The streak was over and only those who suffered through it knew truly how good it felt to end it.
Now it's no longer too soon to ask: What's next?
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