Florida Gators

Gators regain control of season (and narrative) by upsetting Vols in Swamp

todaySeptember 17, 2023


Gators regain control of season by upsetting Vols


By Hays Carlyon

Presented by Woolsey Morcom

GAINESVILLE – Billy Napier didn’t want to leave the field after beating No. 11 Tennessee.

He was too busy recruiting the best players in the country.

An hour after pulling off the best win of his Florida career, the second-year Gators coach was at the 22-yard line talking to many of the blue-chip prospects that visited the Swamp and witnessed the 29-16 win over the Volunteers on Saturday night. He didn’t leave the field until shortly before midnight with five-star quarterback commit DJ Lagway close by him – 90 minutes roughly after the game ended.

This win will help get this class on campus. Napier has a recruiting class that is currently ranked third in the country by 247Sports.com.

If that group holds and gets to campus, Napier will survive and likely thrive as UF’s coach.

This game was gigantic on that front.

This was a signature win but it was also a get-off-the-mat game. The Gators came in limping from a national perspective after losing at Utah in the season opener.

They’ve been limping the last two seasons with two consecutive 6-7 seasons. Napier had lost his last four games against Football Bowl Subdivision schools.

Florida needed this win. Napier really needed it.

It’s hard to keep a top-three class intact with another shaky season.

Beating the Volunteers will buy Napier massive credibility on the recruiting trail.

He’s also proven to be a great identifier of elite talent. Florida won this game despite having a much younger roster than Tennessee. The Gators started one senior. Tennessee starts 20 seniors.

Napier and his staff have brought in an incredible true freshmen class, led by receiver Tre Wilson, end T.J. Searcy and safety Jordan Castell.

True sophomore running back Trevor Etienne, the younger brother of Jaguars star Travis, led the offense rushing for 172 yards on 23 carries. Etienne broke a 62-yard run for Florida’s first score, cutting Tennessee’s early lead to 7-6.

True junior running back Montrell Johnson didn’t gain nearly the yards Etienne did, but caught an 18-yard touchdown and ran another in from 4 yards out.

Defensively, the Gators held Tennessee’s high-octane offense in check. They stopped the Vols on fourth down three times. True sophomore cornerback Devin Moore intercepted Tennessee quarterback Joe Milton and returned it 39 yards, setting up a Florida 1-yard touchdown run by quarterback Graham Mertz to extend the lead to 19-7.

Mertz showed impressive savvy and moxie, making some impressive throws as well. Napier went conservative in the second half, leading 26-7 at the break.

The Gators (2-1, 1-0) now will have to learn to deal with success. The next four games are not daunting. UF hosts Charlotte on Saturday, then travels to Kentucky, hosts Vanderbilt and then goes to South Carolina. There is a chance the Gators could head into their game against Georgia in Jacksonville at 6-1 and 4-0 in league play.

They also might lose twice more before meeting the Bulldogs.

But the narrative that Florida is down and Napier is overmatched is paused for now.

The Gators got off the mat Saturday night.

Now, we will see if they can handle success.

If they can, Napier’s Gators will be even more talented next season with a splendid group of freshmen arriving.


(You can email Hays at [email protected] and follow him on X @HaysCarlyon).

Written by: Hays Carlyon

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