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Tennessee Vols Game Grades Florida Edition

Tennessee exorcised some Florida demons on Saturday. See how each Vols unit graded out in our Vols Game Grades Florida edition.
Vols Game Grades Florida

Florida Gators quarterbacks having career games against the Tennessee Volunteers. It’s a tale as old as time. It didn’t matter on Saturday, though, as the Tennessee Vols exorcised some Gator demons in Neyland Stadium. With College GameDay in town and a national audience watching, the Vols looked like a different team than they have in almost two decades of this rivalry, save the 2016 game.

Tennessee persevered in some tough situations and controlled the game with their offense. The Vols made it much closer than it should have, but Tennessee will take a win in this series any way they can get it.

Tennessee Vols Game Grades Florida Edition

Offense: A

Tennessee looked like the better team all day, and that’s mostly because of its offense. After an inconsistent performance at Pitt, Hendon Hooker and the offense managed this game almost to perfection.

Tennessee’s offense played a nearly perfect game. The only offensive blemishes were two failed fourth down conversions and a Princeton Fant fumble in the first quarter.

Offensive Stat of the Game:  Hendon Hooker with 461 total yards of offense (349 passing, 112 rushing). 

Quarterback: A+

Hooker played himself right into the Heisman conversation. He was 22-for-28 (79%), with 349 passing yards, two passing touchdowns, and 13 rushes for 112 yards with another rushing touchdown. Hooker literally didn’t make a single mistake, save for one high pass. His ability to advance the ball through the air and the ground kept Florida’s defense from stopping the Vols all game long. With Hooker calling the shots, the Vols seem like a team that can handle pressure — something that this team hasn’t done well in twenty years.

Running Backs: A-

Jabari Small and Jaylen Wright combined for 115 rushing yards, but they were hard-earned yards that wore down the Florida defense. Both contributed a touchdown. It was steady and physical running for both backs. For the first time in many years, Tennessee’s rushing game was the more physical and more successful between these two teams. There were times when a more explosive running back could’ve gained more yards, but there’s nothing to complain about from the workman-like effort from Small and Wright today.

It was even more impressive with Small listed as unavailable a few hours before kickoff and Dylan Sampson out due to injury. It’ll be a timely bye week for the running backs.

Receivers: A-

A great day for the receivers, with only one Princeton Fant fumble and one dropped pass as blemishes. The receivers made every clutch catch, many of them in traffic. When they were wide open, which they were several times, they made the plays. Ramel Keyton’s highlight catch late in the first half was key to the Vols taking the lead into the half. In the absence of Cedric Tillman to injury, Bru McCoy and Jalen Hyatt led a receivers corps that is making a solid case as the best in the SEC. Tight ends Fant and Jacob Warren had big catches in the second half, as well.

Under the radar was the blocking of the receivers and the tight ends. On several occasions, they made key blocks on crucial runs.

Offensive Line: A

The offensive line only committed one penalty against Florida and was clearly more physical than the Gator front four. Probably the biggest question mark on the offense coming into this game, they answered the bell. There was quite a bit of attitude from the offensive line, as well. You like to see that, as Tennessee hasn’t had this talent and mentality on the offensive line in many years.

Defense: B

Florida Head Coach Billy Napier came in with an aggressive offensive plan. Napier went for it on fourth down five times, with the Gators converting four of those times. The grades here might be scaled, as every grade is bumped up with Tennessee’s second win against Florida in 18 years.

As Florida quarterbacks are apt to do, Anthony Richardson had the best game of his career. Richardson was 24-for-44 (55%), with 453 passing yards, with two touchdowns. He also added 62 rushing yards on 17 carries with 2 additional touchdowns.

In the end, Tennessee played a bend-but-not break defense and bet that Richardson couldn’t win a showdown with Hooker. It was close, but they were right.

Defensive Stat of the Game: Florida 4/5 on 4th Down Conversions 

Defensive Line: A-

The defensive line was limited by the scheme on the pass rush, but they successfully shut down the Florida run game. Florida managed 141 rushing yards on 42 carries (3.4 yards/rush), but the running game wasn’t the difference in this game. The line played more aggressively in the pass rush in the second half, but when they did get to Richardson they couldn’t bring him down. Omari Thomas was the key for the Vols front four, plugging up the middle and not letting the Gators running game get going.

Linebackers: B+

Linebackers Aaron Beasley, Jeremy Banks, and Juwan Mitchell were also solid in the run defense on Saturday, with Banks playing his typical aggressive game. They were utilized a little more in the pass rush in the second half, but, like the line, had trouble making the tackle on Richardson when they did get to the Gator signal caller. It was a little surprising that Florida didn’t leverage their passing attack against the linebackers a little more.

Defensive Backs: C

The defensive backs had a tough day on Saturday. On top of giving up 453 yards and two touchdowns against a quarterback that had less than 450 yards and zero touchdowns in his first three games combined, they struggled to tackle as well. Kamal Hadden was targeted repeatedly in the passing game. There was a two-play sequence where Hadden missed a tackle-for-loss on fourth down and then missed three different tackle attempts on a Florida receiver. If the Vols want to build momentum on this win and challenge in the east, the defensive backs must get better.

Special Teams: B-

Tennessee had a successful field goal and did not give up any return yardage of consequence on kickoffs. They recovered one on-side kick but gave up a successful on-side kick with 17 seconds to go in the game which put the game in jeopardy late. It’s those little things that could make a difference late in the season between a middle-tier bowl and a CFP Committee selection bowl.

Coaching: A-

Josh Heupel slowed down the offense early to let the team get settled into the game. With the anticipation and pressure surrounding this game, that was a deft move. He also leveraged the tempo that Tennessee is known for and still bled the clock last in the fourth quarter. Handling the pressure was the most important thing for Tennessee coming into this game.

While there’s work to do on the defensive side, the fact that this team was able to both handle the massive pressure of this game and Florida’s best punch speaks to how well prepared this Tennessee team is, both mentally and physically.

Florida played about as well as they could, and Tennessee still found a way to win the game.

Looking Ahead

The Vols get a bye week before traveling to Baton Rouge and taking on LSU. That starts a five-week stretch of Tennessee playing four conference games against three teams currently ranked in the top eight of the nation.

Tennessee is riding high off this rivalry win, and it’s probably good that they have an off week to get focused. LSU will be another test, in a hostile environment. But the Vols seem ready for these tests. Are they ready to take the next step and compete for a Division title? We’ll start to find out in two weeks.

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