So the Volunteers had fallen to No. 4 in the Coaches’ Poll after a lackluster performance against Alabama-Birmingham and the Gators had climbed into the top ten. No worries. The UAB game was a fluke, a period of acclimation to the new season, typical of all Tennessee teams, playing down to the competition.
And the Gators were a big, fat question mark. Hot new flavor-of-the-month Urban Meyer had assumed the wheel of the wreckage left in Gainesville by ousted Ron Zook, and he had brought a shiny new toy: the Spread Option Offense.
In a nutshell, the offense most often starts with a set consisting of five offensive linemen, a receiver on each of the sidelines, another receiver and a running back in the slot, and another running back standing next to the QB, who sets up in the shotgun. Pre-snap, the slot receiver motions over and stands next to the QB. On the snap, the QB sticks the ball in the running back’s gut and reads the defensive end. If the end is locked onto the running back, the QB keeps the ball, and the back blocks the end while the QB heads for the outside linebacker and reads him. If the ‘backer commits to the QB, the QB pitches to the receiver who’s running alongside and behind him. If not, the QB keeps it and runs as far as he can.
There are myriad variations of that play, that play’s surely just one part of the spread option package, and the spread option package is probably just a subset of a larger offensive scheme, but you get the idea.
Meyer was hugely successful with this scheme at Utah and at Bowling Green before that. But there was serious doubt about whether it would work in the SEC against fast defenses. In addition, Florida had a square peg, round hole problem. Florida’s QB Chris Leak is a pro-style quarterback and has a reputation for being adverse to hits, and so he might not care so much for the option that requires he keep the ball and run for his life. We could exploit that by taking away his other options.
On the other hand, the Gators were highly motivated to “reclaim the Swamp. They had “haunting memories” of Casey Clausen leading the Pride of the Southland Band in a victory rendition of Rocky Top after victory in Gainesville.
In any event, the game would be huge. In College Football News’ words:
It’s not an overstatement to say this could turn out to be the season’s most important game with ramifications for the national title, as well as the SEC championship. It’s the first real test for Urban Meyer in the big-time spotlight facing the best team has coached against since, well, ever. In his two years at Bowling Green and two years at Utah, Meyer only coached against two teams that were ranked at the time, Oregon in 2003 and Pittsburgh in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl, with neither higher than 19. Tennessee had a shaky start with a tougher-than-expected 17-10 win over UAB, but it had the last two weeks to prepare and focus on nothing but Meyer’s offense. This should be a classic.
Uh, not exactly.
NOTE: Larger version on the Animated Drive Chart page.
Based on his success against UAB, Clausen got the start, and he promptly went 2 for 5 for zero yards before giving way to Erik Ainge. Gerald Riggs was running well, particularly over the left side, but the first drive, as you can see from the drive chart above, resulted in zero yards and a punt, and the second resulted in a punt after about 25 yards.
The Gators got the ball on their 20, and a few whiffed tackles and 80 yards later, Tennessee was down by a touchdown.
Ainge replaced Clausen on the third series and began his turn at the helm by overthrowing an open Jayson Swain deep. The team went three and out on Ainge’s first series, but he directed an excellent drive on his next. Arian Foster and Gerald Riggs were running well, particularly over the left side, and Ainge and the receivers were in sync. This drive is what the media guide was talking about when it said that the QBs would have a “dream corps of acrobatic and skilled” receivers. The drive included completions to Chris Hannon, Josh Briscoe, tight end Chris Brown, Jayson Swain, and Bret Smith. It was what we’d all been envisioning all summer.
On the next drive, though, everything changed. Ainge drove the team down the field to the 11. At that point, the team was penalized for a false start and found themselves looking at a third and 18 from the 19 yard line. Ainge then threw a bullet to Bret Smith on the one yard line, and while the play was ruled a reception on the field, it was correctly overturned on review. Then came the first of several special teams miscues that cost the Vols the game: Wilhoit’s field goal attempt was blocked. There would be no more points for the Vols tonight.
NOTE: Larger version on the Animated Drive Chart page.
Tennessee muffed the first punt of the second half, leading to a Florida field goal. The next offensive series was capped off by a botched fake punt. Just before the snap, freshman punted Britton Colquitt noticed the defensive jammer running toward him, baiting Colquitt into believing that the gunner was open. The ball was snapped while Colquitt was distracted, and he was lucky just to catch it. Instead of punting, he threw for what he thought was an open gunner unaware that the safety had leaked out to cover him. The ball was deflected, and the Gators took over at the 31 and hit another field goal.
The next drive was marred by penalties and miscommunication between Ainge and the receivers. Plus, despite the fact that they were only down by six points, the team got away from running the ball except for one running play to the left that gained eight yards. On third down, however, they ran to the right and were stuffed. A still-shocked Colquitt followed up with an eight-yard punt, eighteen after tacking on ten for a Gator penalty.
The Gators then proceeded to eat up the clock with a 65+ yard drive and another field goal.
Before the game was over, Ainge would give us a preview of the next game against LSU, throwing the ball toward the line of scrimmage while being thrown to the ground for a sack. The play resulted only in an intentional grounding penalty, but planted the seed that that was really the only harm of such an attempt.
In the end, the defense played well enough to win, holding the Gators to only one touchdown and three field goals. The game was lost due to multiple special teams goofs and a decision or failure to capitalize on UT’s best offense strength: running to the left.
Vol fans were not happy. The general consensus was that the Gators weren’t very good, but that the Vols were worse. That the Vols’ defense “played well enough to win” would be a recurring theme for the rest of the season.
But the season wasn’t over, and Tennessee would have a chance to redeem themselves in their next game against the LSU Tigers.
Read Part 4 of the series: Re-living the Tennessee Volunteers 2005 football season: Part 4, Rally in the Valley.