Five takeaways: Gators win SEC East as Florida, Kyle Trask beat Tennessee Vols

Zach Abolverdi
Gainesville Sun

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The last time Florida won the SEC, Dan Mullen was dialing up plays for Tim Tebow as the offensive coordinator. 

Now the head coach, he’s leading the Gators back to Atlanta to try and win their first conference title since that 2008 season. 

No. 6 Florida (8-1) captured the Eastern division championship Saturday with a 31-19 win over Tennessee (2-6), handing the Vols their sixth straight loss. For Mullen, it’s his first SEC division crown in his 12 years as a head coach (three at UF). 

Gators athletics director Scott Stricklin, who was also Mullen’s boss at Mississippi State, told him after the game to put a smile on his face and enjoy the win. 

“It means a lot,” Mullen said. “I’m thrilled. This is it. I came to Florida to have the opportunity to win championships. That is the reason that I came here. 

“Now we’re SEC East champs. Now we have the opportunity to go be SEC champs. That’s what you work for all the time. That’s what we worked for since the day I got here a little over three years ago.”

Reports:Offensive coordinator Brian Johnson interviews at South Carolina

Here are five takeaways from the game:

Trask tracker

Kyle Trask moved to No. 2 on the school’s single-season record list for most touchdown passes. 

With his two scores in the first half Saturday, Trask surpassed former UF quarterbacks Rex Grossman (34) and Danny Wuerffel (35), who is the record-holder with 39 TDs in 1996. 

Those numbers won Wuerffel the Heisman Trophy that season, and it doesn’t include the three touchdowns he threw in Florida’s national championship victory over FSU. Trask certainly strengthened his Heisman case in Knoxville. 

He had his seventh four-TD performance of the year along with his third 400-yard game. Trask finished with 433 yards on 35 of 49 passing and now has 38 touchdowns this year, one shy of Wuerffel’s record. 

“I think it's pretty cool, but at the same time, I'm not a huge statistic person,” Trask said. “I just focus on taking it one game at a time, and now we're going to be locked in on LSU.”

100-yard games for Pitts, Toney

Kyle Pitts and Kadarius Toney were Trask’s favorite targets at Rocky Top. Florida’s star tight end and dynamic slot receiver, respectively, combined for 236 receiving yards.

Toney led the team with eight catches for 108 yards and a touchdown, while Pitts hauled in seven passes for 128 yards. It’s the second 100-yard receiving game for Toney this season and his fourth time accounting for more than 100 yards of total offense. 

Pitts logged the third 100-yard receiving game of his career, securing the school record for such games among tight ends. He and Toney have now combined for 19 touchdowns, this is the most by a Gators duo since Jabar Gaffney (13) and Reche Caldwell (10) in 2001. 

“I feel very good throwing the ball their way,” Trask said of Pitts and Toney. “Even if they have someone on them, they can make a play on the ball. And there are so many guys like that on our offense, so many weapons other than those two.”

Gators notebook:Toney doing work

Florida receiver Jacob Copeland (15) celebrates with teammates after scoring a touchdown Saturday against the Tennessee Volunteers at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn.

14-point swing

In what’s become a trend for Florida this season, the offense scored on its final drive of the first half and the opening possession of the second half.

Trask executed a two-minute drive to perfection just before the half, moving the chains with three third-down completions and putting UF in front 17-7 with his two-yard touchdown to Kadarius Toney.

The Gators then marched 75 yards in five plays out of the locker room, including a 42-yard connection between Trask and Pitts. Trevon Grimes finished off the series with an 8-yard touchdown, one of his two scores. He finished with a season-high six receptions for 55 yards. 

The 14-point swing gave UF a commanding 24-7 lead and all the momentum. Grimes, Pitts and Toney become the second trio in school history with at least eight receiving touchdowns in a season, along with Reidel Anthony (18), Ike Hilliard (10) and Jacquez Green (nine) in 1996.

More:Five questions with defensive back Kaiir Elam

Third-down dominance

Florida’s defense capitalized Saturday against a Tennessee offense that ranked last in the SEC and No. 115 nationally in third-down conversions. 

Todd Grantham’s unit opened both halves with a three-and-out and allowed the Vols to convert just four of 15 third-down attempts. After having the league’s worst third-down defense through three games, the Gators have turned it around as of late. 

Tennessee true freshman quarterback Harrison Bailey was unsuccessful in his first career start. He was held to 111 yards passing and benched for J.T. Shrout, who finished with 121 yards through the air. 

“Played a great defensive game,” Mullen said. “We’ve got to finish it there when we get into the clean-up time at the end of the game and start subbing guys in. They’ve got to come in and slam the door, not give up the two garbage-time touchdowns that they scored there at the end. But overall pretty pleased with how we played.”

ATL bound

UF is going back to Atlanta for the first time in four years. 

After rival Georgia won the SEC East for three straight seasons, the Gators ended the losing streak to UGA last month and punched their ticket to the title game Saturday with the victory over the Vols. 

Florida won back-to-back division titles in 2015 and 2016 under former coach Jim McElwain, but lost both times to Alabama and wasn’t competitive in either game.  

With a win at LSU on Saturday night, the top-ranked Tide will clinch the Western division to set up another Alabama-Florida matchup. This time around, however, UF has a Trask-led offense that can compete with Mac Jones & Co. 

The Gators and Tide have faced off for the conference championship nine times, including seven in Atlanta. This year’s game is scheduled for Dec. 19 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. 

“This is where we want to be. We want to be playing in Atlanta in December.” Mullen said. “That’s always the goal and that’s the Gator standard. That’s what it’s about. I’m excited to get back. I’ve had two great trips there as an assistant coach and it’s an awesome game, a special game. It’s still and it will be again this year. 

“We’ll enjoy that win, but we’ve got another huge game at home. One of the things we always want to do is win in The Swamp. We have the opportunity to have an undefeated season at home next week, so that’s going to take over our focus starting (Sunday).”

Up next

Who: LSU vs. Florida

When: TBA, Dec. 12

Where: Steve Spurrier-Florida Field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium


Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850

Florida quarterback Kyle Trask passes Saturday against Tennessee at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn.