I’ve put myself in a bad situation this week. Two years ago, I promised myself that I would never pick Tennessee against Florida until I saw the Vols win one in this series.
So I have to pick Florida, right?
But I can’t do that either. I always pick the team that’s playing better, and if that team is going to be playing at home in front of a crazy atmosphere, it’s pretty much a no-brainer. I’m in a tough spot. I’m either a liar to myself or a coward for not picking the team I truly think should win. But enough about all of that. Let’s talk football, because the game will be played between the lines in Neyland Stadium on Saturday.
On the field, Tennessee has simply looked better this year. Yes, there have been two losses, but both were significant steps. The Oklahoma game showed the Vols aren’t intimidated against talented opponents. The Georgia game showed that they can play with them for four quarters. And now the challenge will be to beat one – albeit one that is struggling.
Florida, meanwhile, has been extremely underwhelming in its only two real contests against Kentucky and Alabama. Throw out the Eastern Michigan game – they’re terrible. The Gators are no doubt talented. And that has to scare Tennessee to some extent. What if the talent starts clicking? Recent history says that if there’s one game that everything will click in for Florida, it’ll be this one. But that’s more dealing in the hypothetical. What we do know if the environment will be crazy. We do know Tennessee is getting better and better and, perhaps most importantly, this is a young team that doesn’t carry nearly as many Florida scars.
My head says Tennessee very well could win this one by 2+ touchdowns. My heart says Florida finds a way to rip another one away from Tennessee. I’ll meet somewhere in the middle and say the Gators play better, but it’s not quite enough to push the streak to double digits. Field goals have been so significant in this series and I’m calling for another big one Saturday.
Aaron Medley hits one late and somebody will be tearing that goalpost down and floating down the Tennessee River on it Saturday night.
Pick: Tennessee 31-28
MVP: Tennessee RB Jalen Hurd
Florida ran its mouth about Hurd this week. We’ll see if the mature-beyond-his-years true freshman can make a statement back on the field. Whether or not he’s the official starter or not, he’s clearly Tennessee’s lead back at this point. He’s averaged 5.7 yards per carry over the last two games. If he can get just 4.5 yards per carry, the Vols will have a good chance in this one. Florida’s run defense has been up and down. The Gators struggled against Alabama’s Derrick Henry – another big back. Hurd isn’t at that level yet, but he’ll play a crucial role in keeping the Vols in front of the chains and taking pressure off of the offensive line.
Welp…It’s here. The game we’ve waited for all offseason is finally within reach. Not only from a time-until-kickoff standpoint, but from an end-the-streak standpoint as well. Tennessee is carrying a lot of advantages into this year’s game against the Gators and that simply hasn’t been the case in recent years. The Vols are better than Florida at almost every position on offense, with a couple of offensive linemen being all I covet from the team from Gainesville. The Gator defense has been beyond poor to start the year, especially against the pass, and Justin Worley appears to have found his comfort level with this offense; this spells horrible news if you’re wearing blue tomorrow. Against Kentucky and Alabama Florida gave up a combined 47/78 passing for 814 yards, seven touchdowns and four interceptions – I like Worley’s chances to have a big day if Tennessee’s offensive line can protect him.
Tennessee should have success throwing the ball over the middle of the field which should open up the running game down the stretch. If Tennessee can protect the football and limit the mistakes that have plagued them over the last two games, then they should be able to score some points tomorrow.
Tennessee’s defense is also perfectly geared up to stop Florida. The Gators don’t have a Todd Gurley – although Matt Jones isn’t terrible – and they don’t have a list of wide receivers that scare you. They have a new offensive system that they aren’t comfortable running yet and they have struggled against teams with speed and athleticism in the secondary.
Tennessee’s defense has played one of the best offenses in the country in Oklahoma, and arguably the nation’s best player in Todd Gurley. Florida shouldn’t have anything that Tennessee hasn’t already seen at some point this year and that means good things for the Vol defense.
I swore to myself and our readers in the preseason that I wouldn’t pick Tennessee to win this one:
“On paper, this looks like Tennessee’s best chance to beat the Gators in the last five years or so. Florida has no proven playmakers on offense and Tennessee appears loaded with them. Florida will still be figuring out new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper’s system and likely won’t have gelled by this point. The Gators won’t feature a power-rushing attack which will likely be Tennessee’s weakness on defense. Muschamp and his team will be coming into Knoxville off of a bye week, but that will only give them time to stew over a probable thumping by Alabama in week four. Yes, the table is set for Tennessee break the nine year skid to the Gators…Which is exactly why I can’t pick them to do it. This series has just been too cruel to Tennessee over the last decade for me to suddenly think their luck will change. They are playing in October this year, so maybe that’s the curse-breaker, but as it stands today I can’t predict it.”
So, I wont. Pick: Florida 1-0 (yes, 1 point to zero points).
HOWEVER, if these Two tEams were playiNg iN diffErent uniformS then the VolS playErs would comE out and WIN thiS one. 38-20.
MVP: VOL NATION
The crowd will be absolutely huge tomorrow. I expect them to make things extremely difficult on Florida’s offense and I think that the Tennessee players will feed off of their energy from kickoff until the final whistle. Tomorrow has the opportunity to be a very special day in the history of Tennessee football. Ending a nine-game skid in year two under Butch Jones in front of over 200 recruits and 102,455 fans in a checkered-out Neyland Stadium could go down as one of the biggest wins in the history of the program. Not because this Florida team is so good, but because of what this game has been to Tennessee’s program for the last nine years. Anyone who has supported this team and this program over the last decade deserves to celebrate this one all night long. You the real MVP.
I’m a huge believer that the greatest predictor of the future is the past. While that doesn’t bode well for Tennessee when looking at the last decade, it does look good for the Vols when looking at the recent, and more relevant, past of this season. No matter how you slice it, Florida isn’t playing very well. Their offense has been abysmal in games that weren’t against Eastern Michigan. Their defense, almost inexplicably, has taken a step back this season. For all their flaws last year, Florida’s defense finished second in the SEC in total defense. This year? They’re 13th… behind even hapless Vanderbilt.
I’ve said it all week, but I can’t remember a time when the Vols entered this game clearly playing better football than the Gators. The Vols looked great at times against a Georgia team which should win the SEC East. Young teams like Tennessee always play better at home and UT’s youth movement should work in its favor this week. The young Vols don’t know that they’re supposed to lose to Florida and the coaching staff certainly isn’t scared of the Gators.
Florida’s secondary is vulnerable and their pass rush, thus far, hasn’t been effective. They head into this game last in the SEC in sacks. Worley, in limited action against the Gators last season, was effective. Tennessee will be able to move the ball on Florida if they execute. Look for the Vols to go up tempo more than they did against Georgia. Tennessee’s defense has been big in big situations this year. 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 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.
The only way they lose this one is if Worley can’t play the whole game or they struggle with turnovers. My money is on the young Vols growing up tomorrow.
Tennessee makes enough plays to end the streak in convincing fashion.
Pick: Volunteers 34-20
MVP: Vol QB Justin Worley
Worley is coming off his best SEC start. He lit up Georgia’s secondary last week and, so far, the Gator defense looks extremely vulnerable to the pass. Kentucky threw for 369 yards on the Gators. In the Swamp. KENTUCKY. Worley will have another career day and lead a balanced Vol attack which will see Jalen Hurd, and possibly Derrell Scott, make a few big plays. Ethan Wolf and Pig Howard should have big days in the middle of the field. Worley will flirt with his first career 300 yard game Saturday.
Here’s the deal: as respectful as I am of “the streak,” as cognizant as I am of the fact that Florida will likely come out with their hair on fire, as much as I understand that UT has very real limitations in some key areas, and as much as I understand that Florida has horses, too, there are still a few things can’t get past when trying to predict this game.
First, Florida is coming off a 4-8 season. A season in which they lost to Georgia Southern. And they’ve looked far from impressive this year. To say the wheels could fall off at any moment is an understatement.
Sure, the Vols fell in Norman, and sure, they lost in Athens, too, but they looked pretty darn good at times in both contests. Particularly Georgia. And let’s not forget, they beat a couple decent teams in Utah State and Arkansas State. The only time Florida looked good this year was against a team that got its ass kicked by a wall. Were it not for a bad call in the first overtime against Kentucky, the Gators could well be entering this contest at 1-2.
Then there’s this: The RTI boys and I compared Tennessee’s 35-point loss last October against Alabama with Florida’s 21-point loss in Tuscaloosa two Saturdays ago. While it’s tough to compare different years, if anything, the Vols get shafted in this exercise, as No. 1 ranked Alabama in October of 2013 was a lot more established and stable than the No. 3 ranked Alabama of a fortnight ago. Plus, the Vols were led by Dobbs for a good portion of that contest — his college debut.
Still, he, along with Worley, managed to muster up more yards against Bama than Jeff Driskel (322 vs 200). Tennessee’s defense allowed the Tide to roll up 479 yards. While that’s nothing to brag about, it’s a downright boast compared to the 645 Florida allowed.
Point? There’s nothing that makes me think Florida is a better team than Tennessee. Not last season. Not this season. Not the benchmark of Alabama. And were it not for the fact that the Vols haven’t beaten the Gators in TEN years, this pick would be a layup. But it’s not a layup. It’s a tough pick. But I’ve made one that I’m sticking behind. But before I give it, please know this. I’ve not picked Tennessee in this matchup in quite sometime.
Till now. Pick: Vols win, y’all. And end the streak. 24-17.