It was appropriate that Johnny Majors' jersey was retired prior to Saturday's Tennessee-Florida football game. One of the favorite axioms of the former Vol player and coach is that "Things are never as good as they seem on your best day and they're never as bad as they seem on your worst day."
Tennessee's players and fans alike might take comfort in that because things seem really bad in the Big Orange camp on the heels of a 37-20 home-field loss to probably the least talented Gator squad since the late 1980s. A Florida team known for its uncharacteristic lack of playmakers hung 555 yards of total offense on the Vols and made it look easy.
Tennessee's offense contributed its fair share to the loss, as well. Tyler Bray completed just 22 of 44 passes, threw two interceptions and was called for a costly intentional-grounding penalty. The lackluster performance no doubt has his critics again noting that Bray has yet to play well against one of the SEC's upper-echelon teams.
Where the game was lost
Tennessee had a golden opportunity to blow the game open midway through the third quarter. Already leading 20-13, the Vols took over at Florida's 47-yard line after stopping a fourth-down fake punt. A touchdown here would've bumped the lead to 27-13 and sent the decibel level at Neyland Stadium off the charts.
Instead, the Vols promptly imploded. Bray was called for intentional grounding on the first play of the possession, and the Vols wound up punting the ball back to the Gators. Trey Burton sped 80 yards for the tying TD on Florida's next play. Bray was intercepted five plays later, and Florida immediately launched a three-play 70-yard touchdown drive. Instead of leading 27-13, the Vols suddenly found themselves trailing 20-27.
Bray turned to his two best weapons on Tennessee's next two possessions but came away with two near-misses. Cordarrelle Patterson had a 40-yard pass slip off his fingertips at the Florida 20-yard line to stall one drive and Justin Hunter dropped a potential first-down catch at the Vol 40-yard line to doom the next possession. Three plays later a 75-yard touchdown pass/run bumped Florida's lead to 34-20 and sealed Tennessee's doom.
The big picture
We've heard for months about the improved maturity, experience and leadership of the Tennessee football program. Well, the rubber is about to meet the road. The Vols will be prohibitive underdogs at Georgia Sept. 29 and against Alabama Oct. 20 but they should have a reasonable shot in the other seven games left on the schedule. South Carolina, after all, will be playing its ninth game in as many weeks when it hosts the Vols on Oct. 27.
For the Vols to go 7-2 the rest of the way and finish 9-3, they must stop giving up so many chunk plays. Florida gashed them for rushing gains of 80, 45 and 28 yards, plus burned them for passing plays of 75, 32, 23 and 20 yards.
Meanwhile, Tennessee's offense needs to quit stopping itself. In addition to the 10-yard penalty against Bray for intentional grounding, the attack unit was flagged for three false starts, an illegal motion and an illegal formation. The false starts and the formation penalty were against offensive linemen.
Players of the game
Offense: Rajion Neal
Neal showed his 4.36 speed in bouncing outside for a 20-yard gain on Tennessee's opening scrimmage play. He hit the Gators with six more runs of at least six yards each en route to 66 first-half rushing yards on 14 carries.
"They kind of took us lightly on the run game, and those guys (offensive linemen) did what they had to do to open up the run lanes," Neal said. "I just made sure I stayed downhill and did what was asked of me."
Florida adjusted at the break, however, and limited Neal to 21 second-half yards on nine carries.
"They just brought more (pressure) than the guys (blockers) could handle," Neal said. "They were blitzing and overloading the side they thought we were going to run to. They adjusted well."
Because Neal spent most of 2011 playing wide receiver, he's still readjusting to life as a running back.
"Definitely," he said. "It will just come with time. I feel everything will keep going up."
Defense: A.J. Johnson
The fact the 240-pound Vol linebacker carried twice as a direct-snap tailback — scoring a touchdown on the second one — overshadowed the fact he played a superior game on defense.
Johnson led the Vols in solo stops with 6, in total tackles with 11 and in hurries with 2. He also made a bone-jarring fourth-quarter hit on a third-and-one swing pass that resulted in a six-yard loss with Tennessee trailing 27-20 and desperately needing a stop.
After playing weakside linebacker in 2011, Johnson is adapting nicely to middle linebacker in 2012. He looks to be a budding superstar.
With Tennessee's players likely to experience a post-Florida hangover, this is the ideal time to have the Akron Zips appear on the schedule. This is a team the Vols should beat just by showing up.
Coached by former Auburn head man Terry Bowden, Akron opened the 2012 season with a 56-14 loss to Central Florida, then dropped a 41-38 decision to Florida International.
The Zips bounced back in a big way in Game 3, however, setting six program records in a 66-6 blowout of Morgan State. The records set were for points, total yards (753), passing yards (565), completions (44) and first downs (43). The Zips tied the school record for pass attempts (59). The passing yards also established a new Mid-American Conference mark.
The Vol-Akron kickoff is set for 7:30.
Check out InsideTennessee's video highlights of the action on Shields-Watkins Field as captured by publisher Josh Woodward:
A.J. Johnson speaks with reporters after Saturday's game in this video: