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Preview: Tennessee vs. Florida

Marquez North-1-2Tennessee vs. Florida

Saturday, noon ET

Neyland Stadium (102,455) • Knoxville, Tenn.

TV: SEC Network

Series Record: Florida leads 24-19

 Setting the table

A rivalry that used to be among the premier matchups in the entire season doesn’t have quite the same prestige nationally this year, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a crucial game for these two programs. Hungry might be the best way to describe Tennessee at this point. The young Vols have battled like crazy on the road against superior opponents in their past two games, but have come up a bit short in each. There’s been progress, however. But now the next step is to get in the win column against a talented opponent. And though the Gators are clearly talented, they’re also desperate. Desperate for a win. Desperate to save their coaches’ job and desperate to extend a nine-game winning streak over the Vols that looks to be in some degree of jeopardy. This game may not be what it was 15 years ago, but for these two programs and the sold-out crowd that will be forming the checkerboard pattern in Neyland Stadium, this one means a ton.

 Who has the edge?

When Tennessee throws…

As always, this is a two-part equation. It could balance itself out. The Vols seemingly have an edge against a Florida secondary that has been noticeably underwhelming this season. The Gators were shredded through the air by both Kentucky and Alabama. That’s uncharacteristic of a school that is known to put out some of the best DBs in the nation. That’s not to say there isn’t talent, however. Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III will play on Sundays and the Vols must be weary of him. Florida’s had a bye week to work on some communication issues, but they will be tested by Tennessee’s talented group of pass catchers that includes Marquez North, Pig Howard, Josh Malone, Ethan Wolf, Jason Croom and others. If Von Pearson can give UT any effective snaps, all the better for the Vols. But quarterback Justin Worley has to have time to throw. That’s been the issue. And while Florida’s defensive front also hasn’t been as disruptive as the Gators had hoped, defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. must be identified on every play. He was a huge problem for the Vols last year and he will be again if they don’t make a concerted effort to make sure he’s blocked. IF the Vols can do that, they should have some success through the air. But that’s still a lot to ask of this offensive line. Edge: Slightly to Tennessee 

Jalen HurdWhen Tennessee runs…

It’s tough to get a great feel for Florida’s run defense. The Gators are ranked a respectable 45th nationally against the run – giving up 128 yards per game on the ground and just 3.23 yards per carry on average. Alabama broke several runs on them, but, at the end of the day, who can completely shut down Alabama’s run game? Tennessee, meanwhile, is still only averaging 3.36 yards per carry, but the continued emergence of freshman running back Jalen Hurd gives the Vols optimism in this category. After breaking a couple long runs against Oklahoma, Hurd had a big day at Georgia with 119 yards on 24 carries. So while UT’s numbers aren’t great on paper for the season, the fact that Hurd, who is clearly the lead back at this point, averaged nearly 5.7 yards per carry combined at Oklahoma and Georgia, is very encouraging for the Vols. If he can do anything near that on Saturday, UT will be in great shape. But it’s hard to say the Vols have the clear edge here against such an athletic front. Edge: Even

When Florida passes…

Among the regular starting quarterbacks in the SEC, Jeff Driskel is close to the bottom of the league in most significant passing categories, and is dead last in passer rating by a pretty wide margin. It just isn’t clicking for the physically talented junior. There have been rumblings that his job is in jeopardy and true freshman Treon Harris is waiting in the wings. But all indications are that Driskel will get the start and a chance to work through some of his issues. And while he has bad memories from getting injured in last year’s game against Tennessee, he does have the good memories of playing maybe the best game of his career last time he was in Neyland Stadium. He’ll need to bottle some of that magic. He’s at his best when he’s in rhythm and can use his feet to extend plays. He doesn’t have a stable of elite receivers, but they’re athletic enough to make some plays if Driskel can get them the ball and he should have time behind an offensive line that’s pretty good in pass protection. Tennessee’s been fairly solid in pass defense. Oklahoma had some big plays, but the Vols still give up an average of less than 200 yards through the air. Cornerback Cam Sutton is almost untestable at this point. He’s playing as well as any CB in the nation. It’s hard to see the Gators having a ton of success through the air. Edge: Tennessee 

When Florida runs…

Florida is no Georgia on the ground, but that doesn’t mean the Gators can’t move the ball via the run game. Matt Jones (6-2, 235) is a big, talented back who the Gators will look to get going. Kelvin Taylor and Mack Brown will also see some work. You also have to throw Driskel’s mobility in as a factor in the run game as well. He led the Gators with 59 yards on the ground at Alabama and he had 81 in Knoxville two years ago. In total, Florida averages over 200 yards per game on the ground. Tennessee, meanwhile, is last in the SEC in rushing defense – giving up 169 yards per game on the ground. That number is a little skewed after facing Heisman contender Todd Gurley last week, who went off for over 200 yards on the ground by himself. The Vols did a pretty job keeping him bottled up early, but he wore them down late and broke some huge runs. Tennessee won’t concede that kind of damage against this group of Florida backs, but the numbers give Florida a pretty clear edge on the ground. Edge: Florida

Special teams…

Florida has seemingly had the edge in special teams every year during its nine-game winning streak against the Vols. Whether it be running punts back, blocking kicks or whatever it takes – the Gators, traditionally, have made most of the big plays in this portion of the game. Statistically, the Gators have a big edge in punting and punt return yardage. Florida kicker Fernando Velez has been good as well – converting on 7 of 8 field goals this year. Neither team has done much on kickoff returns. The Vols had one of their better days on special teams at UGA last week. Matt Darr punted better and kicker Aaron Medley is becoming more consistent. In a game that could easily come down to the end, the team that protects, covers and kicks better could come away with the win. Florida has done those things more consistently so far this season. Edge: Florida

 What Florida is thinking

In all the turmoil our program has been through, there’s still one thing we can rely on: we’ll beat Tennessee. Think about last year. We had a rash of injuries, threw an early pick-6 and still won comfortably. We are in their head. It’s fine that everybody is underestimating us. Underdogs to Tennessee after nine straight wins? That’s laughable. Our second-half performance at Alabama wasn’t good, but we just ran into a buzz saw. Tennessee doesn’t have that kind of talent or experience. We’re fresher than them after the bye week and we had an extra week to prepare. Tennessee’s doing some things well – we can’t deny that. But we can and will win this game. We’ll run the ball, let Driskel get outside the pocket some and hit a few throws. We’ll put in Treon Harris if we have to – UT seemingly can never stop a backup quarterback. Our defensive backs have worked out their communication issues, we’ll cover them man-to-man and let Fowler and Co. get after Worley. We can probably knock him out of the game. They’ll play a little tight and make a mistake or two we can capitalize on and we’ll push this streak to double-digits.

 What Tennessee is thinking

Here we go. Maybe this isn’t a “must-win,” but it’s about as big of a game for program as we’ve had in several years. Florida has no idea what they’re walking into. Neyland is going to be insane and we’re going to throw everything we have at the Gators for 60 minutes. We obviously wanted to win at Georgia and Oklahoma, but this is the game we’ve had circled all year. Win and we’re probably going bowling. And think of the recruiting implications. We’ll be like a ship passing Florida in the night when we pull this one off. We’re going to stack the box on defense and make Driskel beat us. We don’t think he can. We’re going to get 3-4 yards consistently from Hurd and stay in manageable down and distances. That’ll keep the Florida pass rush off of us and we’ll hit enough plays in the passing game to win this one. We’ll take a 2-0 win if that’s what it takes, but we’d love to make a statement in this one too. The nation is starting to notice our improvement, but it’ll have no choice come Saturday at about 4:00 pm.

 What RTI is thinking

Tennessee is getting better and is a step ahead of where we thought they might be at this point. Now it’s time for the Vols to take the next step. They have a great chance to do that this weekend. The crowd should be a huge factor. And while that will certainly help Tennessee, what’s more important is that the Vols are playing with more confidence and are better coached than the Gators. But Florida has talent – there’s no denying that. This is a game Tennessee certainly has a chance to win, but it’s by no means a given win for the Vols. If Tennessee doesn’t beat itself, the Vols have a fantastic chance in this one. It’s time to see if they can do just that.

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