Florida wins SEC East, sends Vols to eighth losing season in 13 years

Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Tennessee defensive lineman Ja'Quain Blakely (48) tackles Florida quarterback Kyle Trask during Saturday's game in Knoxville. The Gators, who visited Neyland Stadium in December for the first time, won 31-19 and clinched the SEC East title.

KNOXVILLE - New month. Same result.

A change in the Southeastern Conference football calendar due to the coronavirus pandemic didn't change the outcome of the Florida-Tennessee rivalry, as the No. 6 Gators ventured into Neyland Stadium for the first time in December and thumped the Volunteers 31-19 on Saturday before a socially distanced crowd of 22,943. Florida's win over the Vols was its 15th in the last 16 years, and it resulted in the first SEC East championship for the Gators since 2016.

Tennessee, meanwhile, dropped its sixth consecutive game by a double-digit deficit and at 2-6 is assured of its eighth losing season in the last 13 years.

"I thought our kids fought really hard, but I think this game was very similar to a lot of our games this year," Jeremy Pruitt said after dropping to 15-18 as Tennessee's coach. "About 90% of our plays are winning football and maybe top tier in this league, but unfortunately you have to count all plays. There have been three or four plays on each side of the ball in every game, particularly this one, where we made mistakes or didn't take advantage of a call.

"There is probably not much difference between the team in our locker room and the team in the other locker room, but obviously there is based off our records. That team just won the East today, and I asked our guys how much difference is there between us and them and that we need to figure out how to get there."

photo Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Tennessee wide receiver Velus Jones Jr. leaps to make a catch over Florida defensive back Marco Wilson on Saturday at Neyland Stadium.

Florida, which wore blue helmets with the script "Gators" in orange for the first time ever, built a 31-7 lead and racked up 452 total yards while allowing 334, with the Vols collecting 190 of their total in the final two possessions. The Gators improved to 8-1 and will conclude their regular season next weekend by hosting LSU.

"Our guys are happy," Dan Mullen said after the Gators ended Georgia's three-year stranglehold on the East. "This is what we work for. The goal is to win the East, and now our guys want to accomplish a lot more than that.

"This means a lot. I came to Florida for the opportunity to win championships."

Gators senior quarterback Kyle Trask enhanced his candidacy for the Heisman Trophy by completing 35 of 49 passes for 433 yards and four touchdowns, upstaging the anticipated first career start for Vols freshman counterpart Harrison Bailey. The 6-foot-5, 225-pound Bailey completed 14 of 21 attempts for 111 yards and one score.

"Obviously with it being Harrison's first time to play in a game like that, he probably held the ball a few times too long there, but I thought he kept his poise," Pruitt said. "I thought he scrambled well and kept his eyes down the field. I thought there were really a lot of positives there to see."

Said Vols senior receiver Velus Jones: "The kid played a good game as a true freshman. There are many freshmen who can't fill those shoes."

Tennessee played admirably for much of the first half, trailing just 10-7 before punting the ball away with 2:42 before halftime to the Florida 20. Trask converted a third-and-11 with a 28-yard pass to Jacob Copeland out to the Florida 47 and a third-and-12 with a 17-yard connection to Trevon Grimes to the Tennessee 38.

The Gators took a 17-7 lead with 33 seconds before halftime on a 4-yard pass from Trask to Kadarius Toney, then opened the second half with a five-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that consumed just 89 seconds and was capped by Trask finding Grimes from 8 yards out. The big gain in Florida's drive that extended its advantage to 24-7 was a gorgeous 42-yard connection from Trask to tight end Kyle Pitts to Tennessee's 25.

Pitts was every bit the nightmare that Pruitt expected coming in, amassing seven receptions for 128 yards.

"He's got wiggle like a wide receiver, but he weighs 240 pounds," Pruitt said. "He's a tough cover. There were times tonight we had him double-covered and actually had a lot of calls that way. He got matched up on some linebackers and hurt us, but they've got a really good scheme going there.

"We obviously didn't do a good enough job. That's for sure."

The Gators were effective in containing the Tennessee tailback tandem of Eric Gray and Ty Chandler, who combined for 24 rushes for 96 yards. Chandler had a 7-yard touchdown run with 5:33 remaining to pull the Vols within 31-13.

Florida took its first possession 63 yards on 10 plays but had to settle on a 30-yard Evan McPherson field goal after Trask threw high for Pitts in the end zone on third down. As a result, Tennessee became just the third team this season to hold the Gators without a touchdown on their opening drive.

The Gators had a touchdown called back for offensive pass interference on their second drive and stalled at the Tennessee 41, which left Florida with just a 3-0 lead after the opening quarter.

Tennessee's third possession of the game began at its 4-yard line with seconds left in the first quarter, but the Vols embarked on an 11-play, 96-yard drive that consumed five minutes and 24 seconds and ended with Bailey dumping a short pass to Gray, who raced 15 yards for the go-ahead score. Bailey completed a third-and-8 pass to Jones for 19 yards to Tennessee's 25 to ignite the lengthy march, and the Vols got across midfield on a roughing-the-passer penalty on Gators linebacker Andrew Chatfield.

The impressive drive by the Vols was answered by Florida, which zipped 75 yards in six plays and took a 10-7 lead on a 4-yard touchdown pass from Trask to Grimes. Those were the first of 28 straight points by the Gators until the Vols tallied the final 12.

"Our team isn't quitting," Pruitt said. "We don't have an effort problem. We don't have a toughness problem. We have an execution problem, and we've got to work hard to fix that."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.