GAINESVILLE, Fla. — No. 1 Florida didn't embarrass Tennessee and its new coach, just beat them behind Tim Tebow and a stingy defense.
Tebow ran for 76 yards and a touchdown, Caleb Sturgis kicked three field goals and the Gators opened Southeastern Conference play with a 23-13 victory over the Volunteers on Saturday.
The Gators (3-0, 1-0) won their fifth straight in the series and set a school record with their 13th consecutive victory.
Florida started counting down for this one more than nine months ago, right after Lane Kiffin vowed to sing "Rocky Top" all night long after beating the Gators. Kiffin also riled up Florida with his false allegations of NCAA violations by Florida coach Urban Meyer.
The Gators downplayed Kiffin's comments publicly, but privately vowed to make him pay on the field.
Meyer and Kiffin exchanged a quick handshake when it ended. Meyer then spent more time with several Tennessee players, offering them congratulations on a game well played.
Tebow, return man Brandon James and the defense did most of the damage – no surprise, because all three have given the Vols fits the last three years.
Tebow completed 14 of 19 passes for 115 yards, and had two turnovers that Tennessee (1-2, 0-1) turned into 10 points. James returned three kickoffs for 97 yards, helping set up Florida's first 13 points. The defense harassed Jonathan Crompton and twice held the Vols to short field goals when they were in position for touchdowns.
Ahmad Black also intercepted Crompton on fourth down with about 2 minutes to play, ending Tennessee's last chance at knocking off the defending national champions.
The Gators didn't have a chance to run up the score like many thought they might. They didn't rub it in, either. In fact, the postgame celebration was about as conservative as the game plan.
The most fun Florida fans seemed to have was singing their version of "Rocky Top" in the closing seconds. "Rocky Top, you'll always be, second in the SEC," they sang.
After two nifty 4-yard runs by Tebow, the Gators looked like they would put the game away. But Tebow fumbled at the 4-yard line, and Tennessee scored seven plays later to make it 23-13.
It was Tebow's second turnover of the game. He threw an interception in the first half that Tennessee turned into a field goal.
Otherwise, Tebow was tough to stop.
He ran 24 times in what surely will be called a boring game plan. It appeared as if Florida's coaching staff didn't think their offensive line could block long enough to find receivers down field, or maybe the receivers just couldn't get open.
Either way, this was clear: Florida really misses Percy Harvin.
The Gators may have had some excuses. They played without receiver Deonte Thompson, one of their deep threats, and Tennessee safety Eric Berry seemed to be all over the field. He was blitzing Tebow on one play, blanketing receivers the next and wreaking havoc on Florida's offense.
Meyer turned to Tebow.
His best plays were short gains late in the game. He started right on a third-and-3 play, looked to throw and then cut back left and headed across field. He eluded Wes Brown's grasp, then tiptoed down the sideline for a 4-yard gain. Instead of possibly being forced to punt, the Gators scored a touchdown to make it 23-6.
On the next possession, Tebow used a nasty spin move to escape Berry and Gerald Williams, then hit Dennis Rogan so hard the defender's helmet flew off.
Crompton didn't do nearly as much for the Vols.
He was 11 of 19 passing for 93 yards, with two interceptions. He also was sacked once. Tennessee clearly wanted Montario Hardesty and Bryce Brown to handle most of the load. Hardesty ran 20 times for 96 yards and a touchdown. Brown added 21 yards.
They might have found it a bit easier after Florida linebacker Brandon Spikes injured his ankle early in the game and eventually left the game.