And coach Phillip Fulmer may be getting close to becoming part of the Volunteers’ past because of it.
Florida handed Tennessee its worst loss in more than a quarter-century, winning 59-20.
“We pretty much got our butts kicked by our biggest rival,” Vols center Josh McNeil said. “Yeah, that’s going to be tough to put behind you.”
The margin of defeat was the greatest for a UT team since Georgia skunked the Vols 44-0 in the 1981 season opener.
The No. 22 Vols (1-2, 0-1 Southeastern Conference) surrendered the highest point total of any ranked team this season, although Tennessee is certain to fall out of the polls now. UT has given up 123 cumulative points through three games this season. By contrast, in Fulmer’s first full season as coach, the Vols gave up 144 for the entire campaign — although bowl games were not counted in official statistics back then.
Fulmer is now 0-3 against Florida coach Urban Meyer.
Any way you slice it, Saturday marked a low point for Tennessee football. And in many ways, it mirrored the 45-31 season-opening loss to California.
Fifth-ranked Florida (3-0, 1-0) scored one touchdown on special teams — just like Cal — only this time it was Brandon James breaking off an 83-yard punt return after Tennessee’s first offensive series. The Gators also scored one TD on defense, as Cal did. Erik Ainge and Arian Foster muffed a first-down handoff deep in Vols turf, and Dustin Doe ran it back for the 18-yard TD.
The fumble return was a back-breaker. At the time, Tennessee had pared a 28-6 deficit to 28-20, boosted by a touchdown before halftime and a pick-six interception by freshman phenom Eric Berry.
Ainge has been handing off with his left hand since breaking the pinky finger on his throwing hand. Both he and Foster shouldered blame for the miscue.
“We’re talking about scoring and maybe going for two,” Fulmer said. “All of a sudden, out of nowhere, the ball pops up. It was a huge swing. And it went downhill from there.”
Did it ever.
Florida followed with a 99-yard scoring drive, which began with Tim Tebow throwing from his end zone to find Percy Harvin for a 49-yard gain to put the Gators at midfield.
Harvin capped that drive with a 9-yard scoring jaunt on the first play of the fourth period, and Florida tacked on 17 more points to make it a laugher.
“That’s football,” Fulmer said. “It’s our job to stop them.”
Tebow finished with 360 yards of total offense — 299 passing for two touchdowns and 61 rushing for another pair of TDs. None of the Gators’ scoring drives lasted 10 or more plays.
Harvin had 120 yards receiving and led the Gators in rushing with 75 yards. As usual, the team with better running numbers won; Florida dominated that facet by a 255-37 margin.
Ainge had 249 yards with the TD to Chris Brown, but went only 26-of-41 throwing the ball. Foster led the Vols in rushing with 26 yards. Josh Briscoe, with eight receptions for 76 yards, and Lucas Taylor, with six catches for 57, set the pace among the receivers.
All in all, positives were few and far between for the Vols on this day.
After the game, Foster and Brown were the two last Tennessee players on the field. They shared a private word — much as they did after January’s loss to Penn State in the Outback Bowl — before slowly walking to the locker room.
“It’s hard to swallow sometimes, especially after all the work you put into the season, the games. Teammates you sweat with, cry with,” Foster said. “Sometimes you’re just stunned. You’ve got to step back and gather yourself.”
“We’re not going to let this keep going,” Brown said. “We can’t.”
That’s a necessity for Tennessee with an entire SEC slate still to come, but this loss raises major questions. For one thing, Florida had lost nine defensive starters from last year’s national championship team and fielded a team primarily composed of underclassmen Saturday. Yet the Gators turned back UT in a fashion that might have made even Steve Spurrier cringe.
It all begs the question, where do the Vols stand right now?
“I think we’ve got to really look at that,” Fulmer said.
There’s no time like the present. Especially before one becomes part of the past.