KNOXVILLE - The University of Tennessee football team clearly showed improvement Saturday afternoon, but the Volunteers still have a long way to go.
The Volunteers hung around and fought Florida for a full game - something they didn't do the week before against fourth-ranked Oregon - but the Gators still left Knoxville with a 31-17 Southeastern Conference win.
"I'm proud of the team," first-year UT coach Derek Dooley said moments after the game.
Dooley said nothing like that after the debacle against the Ducks, when a 13-3 lead turned into a 48-13 loss - the worst in Neyland Stadium history.
The Vols saved face in the fourth quarter Saturday but squandered legitimate opportunities to tie the score.
"A loss is a loss," UT junior middle linebacker Austin Johnson said. "But we feel a little bit better than we did last week, because we didn't give up and we knew we fought the whole game. That was a step up from last week.
"That was definitely a big step up from last week."
Coaches would rather correct mistakes than effort, and a few major gaffes gifted the Gators their program-best sixth consecutive win in a rivalry that used to set the pole position for the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division race.
"The effort and the will and the drive and the determination was all there," UT senior tight end Luke Stocker said. "Now it's just a matter of executing the plays that are called and being more mistake-free. But that's all correctable."
The Vols gained just 29 yards on 23 runs and committed three costly turnovers - an interception in Florida's end zone, an interception that gave the Gators a short field for a lead-extending touchdown and a fumble in Florida territory that ended any hope of a fourth-quarter comeback.
"We spit the ball out three times, and we'll never win doing that," Dooley said. "We couldn't run a lick, and we'll never win doing that. We couldn't get off the field on third down on defense. We never could [pressure] the quarterback. They blocked us, and we couldn't hold up in coverage. That was the difference in the game.
"I'm proud of the team, but we've got to learn from it and correct the mistakes."
The Vols scored first against the Gators for the first time since 2006, taking a 3-0 lead late in the first quarter on senior Daniel Lincoln's 49-yard field goal.
Florida took its first lead on Mike Gillislee's 2-yard run with 11:49 left in the second quarter. The teams then traded punts, but UT senior middle linebacker Nick Reveiz fielded Janoris Jenkins' fumble at the Florida 40.
The Vols quickly drove to the Florida 3, but James Bostic kept the Gators in front by intercepting Matt Simms in the end zone.
"Just didn't throw it high enough," Simms said. "Maybe babied it a little bit."
Florida's lead grew to 10-3 on Caleb Sturgis's 44-yard kick early in the third quarter, but Simms bounced back to tie the score on a 49-yard, out-and-up strike to senior wide receiver Denarius Moore.
Two Gators touchdowns - one after a gutsy fake punt on their side of the field and one after Simms' second interception - gave them a 24-10 cushion late in the third quarter, and they appeared to open the fourth quarter with a safety. Simms was flagged for intentional grounding in the end zone, but an instant-replay review showed UT's quarterback releasing the ball from his own 1.
Johnson stripped Florida speedster Jeff Demps near midfield a few plays later, and Simms trimmed UT's deficit to 24-17 with a 35-yard, fourth-down touchdown pass to freshman receiver Justin Hunter with 11:24 left.
Chad Cunningham hit the ensuing kickoff out of bounds, though, and Florida freshman Trey Burton plowed in for a 2-yard score nine plays later.
One more UT turnover - a fumble from tailback Tauren Poole after a 31-yard reception to the Florida 40 - essentially sealed the game with 5:18 left.
"I thought our opponent played really hard," said Gators coach Urban Meyer, now 6-0 against the Vols. "I think you saw two young football teams trying to figure it out there.
"I was very proud of our team for coming in on the road and winning in the SEC. I think that's never something you should take for granted."
Dooley, one week after learning he couldn't take effort for granted, will look back on several positives for his rebuilding program.
The Vols held Florida to 94 total offensive yards - and just 19 on the ground - in the first half. They held Demps, the NCAA Division I track and field sprint champion, to 73 yards on 26 runs.
Simms completed two long touchdown passes against one of college football's best secondaries.
"We improved in a lot of phases," Simms said. "We're going to be a good football team the rest of the year. We're going to use this as motivation, and we're going to keep fighting, and we're going to win a lot of big football games this year."
That seems much more possible than it did last week. But it still won't happen without improvement in several more critical areas.
UT was 2-for-13 on third-down conversions Saturday, running its season total to 9-for-43. Its defense allowed the Gators to convert eight times on 14 third downs.
"The close ones hurt the most, but we just have to step it up to another level," UT sophomore tailback David Oku said. "You've just got to learn from it. Really, that's all it is. It's that simple. You're not always going to be perfect, but you've just got to learn from it.
"We'll keep on the pedal and keep getting better. Eventually it's going to click. Somewhere down the line, it will happen. We just have to keep fighting."
Contact Wes Rucker at email@example.com or (865) 851-9739. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/wesrucker or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tfpvolsbeat.