Hendon Hooker leads way as No. 12 Tennessee exorcises demons vs. No. 22 Florida | Opinion

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – The boats were quadruple parked on the edge of the Tennessee River, hours before Saturday's kickoff.

Fans lined up along Peyton Manning Pass for the pregame Vol Walk were more than four deep. Try scores deep.

They came to watch a Top 25 football clash. They came to checker the stadium in orange and white. They came to watch Hendon Hooker work the Gators silly.

Oh, but they came for more than that.

They came for a cleansing after a decade-and-a-half of darkness hovered over Tennessee’s program. They came for a purifying victory against the rival that has tortured this program since the 1990s.

Hooker delivered it.

Hooker has been the main character in Tennessee’s turnaround under Josh Heupel, and the sixth-year senior quarterback supplied a signature performance in his 15th start in orange.

No. 12 Tennessee 38, No. 22 Florida 33.

A win courtesy of No. 5, Hendo Cinco.

Get that man in the Heisman Trophy conversation. Or, at least, etch him into Vols lore as the quarterback who led Tennessee (4-0, 1-0 SEC) to just its second victory against Florida (2-2, 0-2) in the past 18 matchups.

This is not a good Florida team, but Tennessee has managed to lose to not-good Florida teams before.

And this win was not pretty, in some respects, but the Vols haven’t beaten Florida enough to separate wins into columns. Against Florida, ugly victories are just victories.

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The Vols couldn’t cover. They couldn’t tackle. Florida tight end Keon Zipperer, on a 44-yard scoring catch and run, broke three tackles – including two missed tackles by the same player, Kamal Hadden. A remarkable display of tackling ineptitude.

None of that fazed Hooker.

The only thing better than Hooker’s passing was his running. The final tally: 349 passing yards. 112 rushing yards. Three touchdowns.

Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker runs for a touchdown during the first half against the Florida Gators.
Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker runs for a touchdown during the first half against the Florida Gators.

He’s the first Tennessee quarterback to top 300 yards passing against Florida since Joshua Dobbs did so in a 2016 victory. Dobbs also surpassed 100 yards rushing in that game. Hooker was better. At halftime, his arm or legs accounted for 313 of Tennessee’s 337 yards.

Hooker gained an assist from his wide receivers. With top target Cedric Tillman sidelined with an ankle injury, Bru McCoy, Jalin Hyatt and Ramel Keyton stepped up.

Keyton’s diving catch of a 43-yard pass unlocked a 99-yard scoring drive before halftime.

Florida’s defense provided a helping hand, too, with multiple coverage busts.

Omari Thomas supplied a defensive highlight by forcing a fumble to halt a Florida red-zone opportunity in the fourth quarter. And Hadden intercepted Anthony Richardson on the game's final play after Florida scored a late touchdown and recovered an onside kick to give the Vols one last scare.

But give the game ball to Hooker. He lost his starting job at Virginia Tech in 2020. He transferred but didn’t become UT’s starter until the third game of last season. A year later, he’s earned his place among the nation’s best players.

Florida delivered a few counterpunches, led by Richardson’s 515 yards of total offense.

Scared money don’t make money – that’s Florida coach Billy Napier’s mantra – and the Gators converted a fourth down on three touchdown drives. The Gators moved the chains five times on six fourth-down tries, including twice from their own territory.

Kentucky and South Florida bottled up Richardson, but his challenge Saturday was deciding which open wide receiver to throw to.

Tennessee is undefeated but not unblemished, and pitfalls await if they don’t address the soft spots that Florida persistently exploited. But a quarterback like Hooker masks some warts.

This rivalry was born by the SEC’s split into divisions that caused these teams to meet annually in an SEC East clash. The rivalry became one of college football’s best in the 1990s, but even in those Tennessee glory days, the Gators had a decisive advantage, and Steve Spurrier needled the Vols with a barrage of barbs.

The SEC plans to dump divisions and unite as a 16-team conference after Oklahoma and Texas join. After that conference expansion, Florida and Tennessee are unlikely to meet annually.

So, the Vols savored this.

Running back Jaylen Wright celebrated with a Gator chomp after his fourth-quarter touchdown run, as orange and white fireworks shot into the blue sky.

For Tennessee, the clouds parted over this rivalry on a day when its quarterback delivered catharsis.

Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY NETWORK: Tennessee football defeats Florida with Hendon Hooker's unreal effort