KNOXVILE, Tenn. – When Florida coach Urban Meyer took a leave of absence last year, little did we know that the Gators’ offense would follow suit.
Then again, maybe that is the Gators’ offense we saw Saturday at Neyland Stadium, the same offense we’ve seen for three straight weeks now.
“We don’t really care how it looks … as long as we win,” junior quarterback John Brantley said following Florida’s 31-17 win against a Tennessee team that fought hard, but simply didn’t have the horsepower to avoid its sixth straight loss to the Gators.
On the surface, Brantley is right. They don’t pass out style points in football.
But there’s a bigger picture here.
Is there any way the Gators (3-0, 1-0) can win an SEC championship playing this erratically on offense?
Is there any way the Gators can even make it to the SEC championship game when they’re leaning on one player (Jeff Demps), not running the ball with any consistency and making few, if any, explosive plays down the field in their passing game?
Meyer didn’t seem overly concerned about the bigger picture early Saturday evening, his players making their way to the team buses victorious after their first road test of the season.
“Coming on the road and winning in the SEC is something we’ll never take for granted,” Meyer said.
“That’s kind of who we are right now.”
Asked point-blank if this team was good enough, Meyer turned philosophical.
“Good enough for what? We’re 3-0. I don’t know,” Meyer said. “We’ve got to somehow beat Kentucky (next week) and get to 4-0. Are we good enough yet? We went on the road and won at Neyland Stadium, and a bunch of guys worked real hard against a very talented team. Are we good enough to win at Neyland Stadium? That’s all I’m worried about. We were.
“Now, we’ve got to find a way. Right now, can we beat Kentucky at home? I don’t know that. Flip a coin, man.”
Other than a couple of busted coverages that led to a pair of long Tennessee touchdown passes, Meyer was pleased with his defense. The Gators sacked quarterback Matt Simms six times, intercepted two passes and held the Vols to 29 rushing yards.
But Brantley’s hoarse voice during postgame interviews told you all you needed to know about the Gators’ offense.
There was another bad snap to start the game, several instances where the Gators were slow getting out of the huddle and struggling to get lined up and a running game that’s pedestrian at best.
Especially telling was a failed third-and-1 in the first quarter followed by a fourth-down play where the Gators couldn’t make a foot.
“Disappointing,” Meyer said. “It’s going to be a long season if we can’t hit that third-and-1. It’s going to be a real long season.”
The Gators ran the ball 49 times with Demps getting 26 of those carries. They averaged just 3.1 yards per carry, and it was the third straight game in which Brantley was held under 175 yards passing.
In fact, Florida’s longest play of the game came on a fake punt, a play that changed the complexion of the game after Tennessee had tied it at 10-10 midway through the third quarter.
Omarius Hines rambled for 36 yards on fourth-and-6 from the Gators’ own 39 to set up Brantley’s 7-yard touchdown pass to Frankie Hammond.
Without that successful fake punt, it might have been anybody’s game in the fourth quarter.
“When momentum shifts, you have to find a way to get it back somehow,” Meyer said. “When you have experienced offensive players, you don’t have to do that stuff. When you have inexperienced players, you have to somehow create a play.”
The other saving grace for the Gators was that they converted on third down when they needed to in the second half, in particular some key third-and-long situations in the passing game.
“I didn’t put the ball in the best spots, but they went up and got the ball,” said Brantley, who’s obviously still feeling his way into this whole starting quarterback role after watching Tim Tebow from the sideline the past two years.
Meyer noted that the Gators’ 2006 national championship team wasn’t always a work of art offensively.
“At times, we looked pretty good (in 2006). At times, this offense has looked pretty good,” Meyer said. “However, we’re nowhere near where we need to be, so if that happens, how do you win?
"You play great defense. You score in the red zone, which we’re getting a little better at, and then you have a great kicking game and take care of the football, and we’ve been doing that.”
Is it enough for the Gators to get back to Atlanta for a third straight year?
A better question might be: Is it good enough to beat Kentucky next week?
“As long as we’re the better team on the field that day, that’s all that matters,” Brantley said.
The bigger picture can wait.