Gators gain confidence, but also need consistency

Florida athlete Kadarius Toney runs for yardage in the first half Saturday against Tennessee at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn. [Wade Payne/Associated Press]

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The cavernous stadium had long been reduced to a few Tennessee fans who had yet to escape into the night, but that wasn’t going to stop the Florida football players from celebrating this one.

First, it was Chauncey Gardner-Johnson who hopped up on the brick wall in front of the Gator band and the orange-and-blue clad fans who had the good seats at Neyland Stadium. Then guard Tyler Jordan and some offensive linemen and then a few more players until there were a dozen or so cheering and chomping as the band played on.

Once the band stopped, it was Feleipe Franks slapping palms with fans with the knowledge he is now 2-0 as a starting quarterback against Tennessee.

He didn’t need the Heave to Cleve this time, although he did fire a different kind of dagger to Tyrie Cleveland. This one gave Florida a 40-13 lead and sent the Vols’ orange army filing toward the exits.

Quick, a show of hands. How many of you had Florida scoring more points in Neyland Stadium than any Gator team before it?

More than Danny Wuerffel’s teams or Tim Tebow’s.

More than Steve Spurrier or Rex Grossman.

This.

Florida.

Team.

The one that looked weak two weeks ago and incapable of scoring 47 points against air at times this year almost put up half-a-hundred on Tennessee.

They did it not so much because of offense (although the offense did have its moments), but because of a defense that is playing the risk/reward card like daddy’s Visa. The Gators gave up some big plays, but made so many that it didn’t matter.

I guess it’s time for the caveat here.

You saw it.

Tennessee is awful.

We knew after the Kentucky game that Florida still has a long way to go.

Now we know that Tennessee has so much farther to go it can’t even see Florida.

The Vols made enough mistakes to last a season. But the key is that Florida was able to take advantage of them.

You don’t have to have a great offense to score a lot of points. I mean, it would be nice, but clearly this offense is so under construction it has the Bob’s Barricades and the guy with the “Slow” and “Stop” signs.

“What I gotta see is a little more consistency out of our performance,” Florida coach Dan Mullen said. “We’re getting better but our consistency.

“We can’t be big explosive play, terrible play. Big play, we went the wrong way. We missed a coverage, we had bad coverage. We start a series with two penalties. The mental toughness.”

For the second week in a row, Florida had fewer first downs than its opponent and still won easily.

This may be the stat of the year for this team — Florida in the last two games has made 28 first downs and has scored 95 points.

That’s mind-boggling.

But that’s the different mindset that Mullen has brought to the program. This is still a team that can frustrate its fans with three-and-outs and silly mistakes and maybe you still aren’t convinced of a whole lot other than Florida can beat the stuffing out of bad teams.

But it was still Tennessee and it was still 100,000 screaming fans minus a couple of thousand Gator fans who made it and even if we don’t want to believe this team has progressed from two weeks ago it was still an SEC win, the first since last September.

It was Jeremy Pruitt, the Tennessee coach who inherited an even bigger mess than Mullen did, talking about being dominated on the line of scrimmage. It was the OTHER team having a guy being told to leave (linebacker Quart’e Sapp refused to go into the game and was sent to the locker room and you can insert whatever joke you want right here).

We still don’t know whether Florida is any good. We just know it is a lot better than Tennessee.

“There are a lot of things I like,” Mullen said. “I like the direction we’re heading, but we have to get tougher mentally.”

We still don’t know if this team is close to turning on the switch that will make the offense shine. We just know the Gators reached for it Saturday night.

“When we play with confidence and play at the level we did tonight,” said suddenly-turned playmaker Freddie Swain, “it’s hard to beat us.”

Florida had six touchdown drives in the game. The length of those drives — four plays, two plays, one play, one play, seven plays and one play.

Aren’t short fields wonderful?

You add the Gators’ performance into what happened in Lexington on Saturday night and suddenly, things don’t look as bad as they did. I know, every game is its own game.

But there’s a little more hope, a little more promise, a little more confidence.

“We took a step forward,” Mullen said.

Nobody wants to get too carried away.

But for a night in Neyland, why not?

Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at pat.dooley@gvillesun.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.

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