It’s hate Florida week here in Knoxville as the Vols prep for a massive game with the struggling Gators. Unless the Vols are able to find a way to beat Florida this weekend, the Gators will have won 10 straight games in the series. For UT fans everywhere, it’s well past time the Vols put an end to the streak and start one of their own.
Fortunately for Tennessee fans, the Vols are trending in the right direction. There’s no doubt they’re a better team than last year; Florida, on the other hand, looks even worse.
That’s quite an accomplishment considering they turned in a 4-8 campaign last season.
It all starts with the Florida defense – a group that was dominant last season despite multiple injuries. In 2013, it ranked third in the SEC in points allowed (21.3 per game). This season, Muschamp’s once vaunted defense ranks 11th in the SEC (24.0 ppg) despite beating up on one of the worst teams in the nation in Eastern Michigan. Kentucky put up 30 points and 450 yards on the Gators in a narrow loss. That’s the same Kentucky team that struggled to move the ball against Vandy over the weekend. For perspective, the previous four years, Kentucky scored a combined 31 points on the Gators. Florida is giving up 100 yards more per game than in 2013.
The Vols shouldn’t have trouble moving the ball on Saturday.
But for Tennessee to win Saturday, the improved Vol defense will have to shut down Florida’s offense – one that is always at its best when going against the Volunteers. Florida QB Jeff Driskel is struggling, but the Gators will likely stick with him Saturday. He’s playing the worst football of his career and is the lowest-rated passer in the SEC. Tennessee’s improved speed on defense should give him fits.
More than anything, though, 3rd down defense is the key to this game. Consult the list below which shows the 3rd down defense rankings in the series over the last decade (going by opponent 3rd down conversion percentage).
3rd Down Defense National Rankings
2004 – Tennessee 45 Florida 96
2005 – Tennessee 43 Florida 31
2006 – Tennessee 83 Florida 31
2007 – Tennessee 71 Florida 79*
2008 – Tennessee 42 Florida 11
2009 – Tennessee 31 Florida 3
2010 – Tennessee 73 Florida 37
2011 – Tennessee 47 Florida 2
2012 – Tennessee 53 Florida 10
2013 – Tennessee 95 Florida 16
Notice anything? Over the last 10 years, the team with the better third down defense is 9-1 in the series. The last time the Vols beat the Gators, Tennessee’s 3rd down defense ranked 51 spots ahead of Florida’s. The lone exception in the table comes in 2007 when both teams featured less than stellar third down defenses. The Vols barely edged out the Gators in the rankings in that category in ’07 but fell 59-20 in the Swamp in a game that saw Tim Tebow shred the Vols.
Jeff Driskel is no Tim Tebow and this year’s Vol defense is astronomically better than the 2007 version.
Where do those numbers stand in 2014? The Vols rank 3rd nationally in 3rd down defense while the Gators are an abysmal 95th. There hasn’t been a disparity that large in the series in the last decade. How big is 3rd down defense outside of this series? BCS National Champions over the last 10 years averaged a top-15 3rd down defense. Half of them ranked in the top-10 nationally in that category.
Simply put – those teams came through in the clutch thanks to a defense which was at its best in big situations.
As all Vol fans know, games with the Gators are almost always decided by a few key plays. If history holds and the Vol 3rd down defense lives up to its billing, the Vols will be the ones coming through in key 3rd down situations this Saturday, not the Gators.
That’s a recipe for a Vol win and perhaps even a winning streak of their own.