Florida handles No. 11 Tennessee in 29-16 upset

GAINESVILLE, FL - SEPTEMBER 16: Florida Gators running back Montrell Johnson Jr. (2) runs with the ball for a touchdown during the game between the Tennessee Volunteers and the Florida Gators on September 16, 2023 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium at Florida Field in Gainesville, Fl.  (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Florida used a 20-point second quarter to upset No. 11 Tennessee, 29-16, on Saturday night.

The Gators outscored the Vols 20-0 in the 15 minutes before halftime to take a 26-7 lead into the break. After scoring first, Tennessee ran a total of 10 plays on its next three drives as Florida scored 26 straight.

Florida’s game plan from the start was clear. It wanted to hold onto the ball as much as possible. Its opening drive lasted half the first quarter before it resulted in a missed field goal and its second TD drive of the night also lasted half of the second quarter.

Tennessee, meanwhile, was all out of sorts. The Vols committed numerous pre-snap penalties and the defense even fell for a hard count as Florida purposely tried to draw UT offsides on fourth down while leading by 13 in the fourth quarter.

Florida QB Graham Mertz had one of the most efficient games of his career since he burst on the scene as a freshman at Wisconsin. Mertz was 19-of-24 passing for 166 yards and a TD while dealing with cuts on his hands in the second half and RB Trevor Etienne dominated the Volunteers on the ground. Etienne rushed 23 times for 172 yards.

The Gators' win means Tennessee's losing streak in Gainesville will now extend for at least 22 years. The Vols last won at Florida in 2003. It's also the first time Florida has beaten a ranked team at home in four seasons since taking down Auburn in 2019.

Who is second-best in the SEC East?

There are now just three undefeated teams in the SEC East: Georgia, Kentucky and Missouri. Everyone else has at least one loss.

It’s hard to figure out who Georgia’s biggest challenger will be. Kentucky’s opponents so far this season have been Ball State, Eastern Kentucky and Akron. Missouri got a big win over No. 15 Kansas State on Saturday, but the Tigers were less than impressive the week before against Middle Tennessee.

Are the Vols still the No. 2 team in the East? QB Joe Milton made some tantalizing deep throws against the Gators but also threw his first interception since 2020 on Saturday night. Milton finished the game with 287 yards passing, but many of those yards came in the second half after Florida had gotten out to a big lead.

The Gators looked awful and disorganized in their Week 1 loss to Utah. Saturday’s win was a massive step in the right direction. Etienne is one of the best running backs in the SEC, but it’s hard to trust Mertz until he has a few more solid performances. He completed less than 60% of his passes over his final two seasons at Wisconsin and threw 21 interceptions.

If anything, Florida’s win illustrated the chasm between Georgia and the rest of the division. While the Bulldogs were down 11 at halftime to South Carolina earlier in the day, they looked like the two-time defending national champions they are in the second half on the way to a 10-point victory. It's hard to see anyone in the SEC East taking down the Bulldogs in 2023.