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Defense could be bigger concern for Florida after Tennessee loss

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Two narratives stuck out after Florida's colossal collapse in Knoxville: The offense reverted back to its old, stuck-in-the-mud ways and the defense -- particularly the supposed world-class secondary -- got lit up in the second half.

After a stunning first half that saw the Gators take what appeared at the time to be a commanding 21-0 lead, Florida lost all its footing on both sides of the ball and watched Tennessee roar back with 38 straight points in a 38-28 win that snapped an 11-game Florida winning streak in the series, gave the Vols true East favorite status and left many wondering what to really think of this Florida team.

The offense, which once again finds itself using a backup quarterback, was always going to be called into question, but now the backbone of this team -- the defense -- is licking a ton of wounds after a weekend of misery on Rocky Top. And that's waaaaaay more concerning than anything the offense didn't do in the second half because if Florida was going to make another run to Atlanta for the SEC championship game, it had to have great defensive play throughout the season.

Now, it might be too early to call what was the top-rated defense that had allowed 14 points (zero passing touchdowns) through the first three games overrated after Saturday. Give Tennessee credit for how it adjusted, but it's fair to say that the first three-and-a-half-weeks of the season provided a bit of fool's gold from this defense. Saturday's second-half showing -- complete with total secondary breakdowns and zero sacks, tackles for loss or quarterback hurries -- exposed this defense a little.

"It was definitely humbling," safety Marcus Maye told reporters on Monday.

On paper, the Gators absolutely owned Tennessee's offense in the first half. The Vols mustered three points on three red-zone trips and managed 162 total yards. Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs looked rushed and uncomfortable with 84 yards and an interception on 7-of-20 passing. Tennessee was barely averaging 3 yards per carry, and with the way Florida was flying around the ball and at Dobbs, that 21-3 halfitme lead look insurmountable.

But when you dive into some of the miscues Tennessee had, this defense caught some huge breaks. For one, the play-calling near the goal line was very questionable, including the lack of quarterback sneaks with a 6-foot-3, 210-pound shifty QB. There was too much Dobbs in the shotgun, and the Gators pounced.

Florida's defense also benefited from five first-half drops. According to ESPN Stats & Information, if Tennessee pass-catchers had caught those throws and did not gain a yard after the catch, Dobbs would have gone 12-20 for 123 yds and a touchdown in the first half. And that's being conservative when you consider what could have happened following some of those catches.

But the second half was a disaster, and Dobbs' composure and arm were big reasons why. Dobbs picked apart Florida's secondary with 235 yards and a career-high four touchdowns (last year, Florida allowed 250 passing yards just three times and never gave up four touchdowns). He also ran for ran for 41 yards and another touchdown in the final two quarters. Florida stayed aggressive -- a staple of a Geoff Collins-run defense -- and it played right into Dobbs' hand, as he went 5-for-5 for 102 yards with three touchdowns and zero interceptions against Florida's blitz. All of those touchdowns went for 20-plus yards.

The Gators, looking gassed and out of shape in the second half, got fooled on a 23-yard wheel route that went for a touchdown because of busted coverage that left Jalen Hurd wide open. Josh Malone sprinted right past nickel corner Duke Dawson -- who was picked on plenty in the second half -- for a back-breaking 42-yard touchdown that made it 31-21 in the fourth.

The biggest play of all might have been Dobbs' 67-yard touchdown pass to Jauan Jennings early in the fourth to give Tennessee its first lead. Tennessee coach Butch Jones said later that the pass was supposed to go to the left side of the field, but Dobbs saw All-SEC cornerback Teez Tabor slip, which left a sprinting Jennings wide open.

Yes, that was a simple mistake, but mistakes, miscues, and poor execution led to a Tennessee onslaught of offense in the second half. It didn't help when Tabor went out with what appeared to be cramps and Florida's questionable secondary depth was put on display, allowing Tennessee to take advantage. Tennessee stayed within its game plan and chipped away at Florida's defense with a staggering 9.1 yards per play in the second half.

"We didn't stop them," linebacker Alex Anzalone said Saturday.

No, the Gators didn't, and that's disturbing when you think about the issues Tennessee had entering the game. The Vols had been held under 350 yards and 30 points twice -- both to unranked opponents. It's also disturbing when you consider that in Florida's first real defensive test, the Gators got walked all over.

Florida was the class of college football defenses, but now has questions going into the heart of SEC play. The sky isn't falling, but this unit has to regroup quick if Florida is going to stay in the East race.