AP photo by John Raoux / Florida football coach Dan Mullen, left, and Tennessee counterpart Josh Heupel greet each other before Saturday night's game in Gainesville, Fla.

Maybe Florida's 38-14 victory over Tennessee on Saturday night was more lopsided than you expected it to be. Maybe not. When the wise guys in Las Vegas make the spread 19 points, you could say it was slightly disappointing.

Then again, the Gators' final touchdown came inside the last two minutes, and the Volunteers had a couple of tosses into the end zone in the dying seconds to negate that score.

Point is, to watch Tennessee in the Swamp for so much of Saturday night was to imagine that this so-called rebuilding job may take a whole lot less time than originally predicted for first-year coach Josh Heupel.

And it wasn't just because throughout the opening half, the Florida crowd in full throat, the Vols twice scored on big pass plays, which has long been Heupel's calling card.

That was certainly encouraging, especially given all the big pass plays that Heupel has called to perfection, only to see his quarterbacks routinely overthrow wide-open wideouts.

No, what was encouraging was more on the other side of the ball, where the Big Orange defense often kept the lethal Florida offense off balance.

And lest anyone forget, the defense was supposed to be the weak link on this Tennessee team.

Instead, there were the Vols forcing two punts in the opening half.

Instead, there was senior defensive back Alontae Taylor, a Volunteer State native, forcing a second-quarter fumble just when it looked like Florida was about to score and lead by 10.

Instead, you could argue that Tennessee actually looked like the more solid, fundamentally sound team in the opening half, even with Florida owning that No. 11 national ranking when this one began.

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Tennessee at Florida football on Sept. 25, 2021

But talent also has a way of canceling out schemes when your talent is as outrageous as Florida. So that 14-10 first-half lead became a 31-14 deficit at the start of the fourth quarter, mostly because the Gators currently have better players than the Vols and Tennessee often stubbed its own toe with with dropped passes and undisciplined penalties.

"At the end of the day," Heupel said at the end of the game, "when you're playing at this level, you've got to execute."

And the execution wasn't always there, much as it hasn't often been there for the better part of 20 years. So Florida did what ranked teams favored by 19 points are supposed to do after leading by but 17-14 at halftime. It stormed ahead thereafter. And if Tennessee didn't exactly fall apart, it didn't seriously threaten to walk out of the Swamp with a victory either.

Still, as matter of fact as the Gators' 16th win in the past 17 outings against the Vols became down the stretch, Tennessee had its moments. Dropped passes and too many penalties — shortcomings that have plagued the Vols all season — once more surfaced. Injuries will always be a concern with this team because of a thin bench.

But this was anything but a rout from the get-go. As ESPN's Joe Tessitore noted, Florida prevailed against "a Tennessee team that came out punching and fighting and playing with everything they had."

Should that continue, should Tiyon Evans keep looking like a premiere Southeastern Conference running back, should the defense remain stout and the offense become more prolific — as Heupel's offenses always have — a bowl game remains in play.

Now 2-2, the Vols should beat Vanderbilt and South Carolina and at least scare Kentucky. Beat Kentucky, though, and the six wins required to go bowling should be in the bag.

As ESPN analyst and former Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy was discussing the Vols late in the game, he said "Florida can squeeze the life out of you."

The Gators can. But it was never so much that the Vols gave up or gave in as much as there may not be enough there this year to win such a game on the road.

But Heupel also said this when asked what it will take for the Big Orange to return to Florida's level among the top third of the SEC.

"There were plenty of plays (tonight) to close the gap," he said. "It's (closing the gap) in recruiting, too."

It's still a big gap. But it felt like it closed a bit against the Gators, despite Florida's final margin of victory.

"A ton of positives out there," Heupel said.

Maybe one day, such improvements will generate a ton of wins.

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.