Tennessee at Florida
When: Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015
Where: Gainesville, Fla. (Ben Hill Griffin Stadium/The Swamp)
Early line: Tennessee favored by 3 (per Golden Nugget)
Florida at a glance:
Head coach: Jim McElwain (1st year at Florida)
All-time record: 691–400–40
2014 results: 7-5 (4-4 SEC); Beat East Carolina 28-20 in the Birmingham Bowl
Returning starters: 11: 4 (offense), 7 (defense)
2014 overview: The critical do-or-die year for former coach Will Muschamp was more die than do. The Gators weren’t awful – they would’ve likely had an eight-win season if not for the bizarre first-game cancellation against Idaho that was never rescheduled. And had Muschamp been able to pull out at least one more win in tight games against LSU or South Carolina, there’s a chance he might still be in Gainesville instead of running Auburn’s defense in 2015.
But despite the winning record, the 4-2 mark against the East and some extremely heart-breaking, competitive losses, Florida made the coaching change at the end of the season – bringing in former Alabama offensive coordinator and Colorado State head coach Jim McElwain.
His charge: Take Florida to the next level that the Gators struggled to reach during much of Muschamp’s tenure.
The good news is, despite the lose of Dante Fowler Jr., several key pieces from the Florida defense that finished 15th nationally in 2014 returns, including star cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, linebacker Antonio Morrison and several talented players on the defensive line. That should help the Gators be competitive in Year 1. But to get Florida back in championship contention, McElwain must not only sustain that defense, but fix an offense with major flaws heading into 2015.
There are a couple pieces to build around in running back Kelvin Taylor and receiver Demarcus Robinson. The offensive line and quarterback positions, however, have massive issues that will likely take more than a year to fix.
Three early questions for the 2015 matchup:
1. Will this be a low-scoring slugfest?
On paper, you can make the case that both of these teams could struggle to move the ball and score consistently in this game. Tennessee, playing at home, couldn’t muster a touchdown against Florida last year in its 10-9 loss. While some faces have changed, it’ll be a lot of the same offensive line going against Florida defenders in the front seven such as Morrison and defensive linemen Jonathan Bullard, Alex McCalister and Bryan Cox Jr, all of whom made disruptive plays against the Vols in 2014. On the other hand, Florida’s offensive line is in a rebuilding phase and will be truly tested for the first time against the Vols’ talented defensive front. Could there be another 10-9 type of game on tap? Hopefully not for the fans’ sake, but it wouldn’t be surprising if less than 40 total points are scored in this game.
2. Can the Vols avoid the big turnover?
If Tennessee protected the ball better in 2014, the Vols, in all likelihood, would’ve beaten Florida. And with the Gators lfiguring out their new offense, they might have to rely on turnovers again to set the offense up with good field position. Florida’s secondary is one of the best that the Vols will see in 2015 with Hargreaves getting the most recognition, but several other quality players in it as well such as Brian Poole, Keanu Neal, J.C. Jackson, Marcus Maye and Jalen Tabor. That’s an athletic bunch, and with UT’s receivers struggling to find open space on a consistent basis in recent history, the Gators should have a chance to force some turnovers.
3. Does “The Streak” play into Tennessee’s mindset?
You can’t discuss this matchup without mentioning it – Florida’s win streak over Tennessee hit double digits last year, and the Vols haven’t won in The Swamp since 2003. Butch Jones downplayed it last year and likely will again this year, saying that the team is too young to have experienced much of that. But this has been a series that just hasn’t gone Tennessee’s way. You have to wonder sometimes if that plays into Tennessee’s psyche at all, especially if it’s a close game down the stretch.
How do we expect it to play out?
Good luck figuring this one out. Reason and logic don’t seem to have much place in this series. My colleague Houston Kress has gone on record many times on RTI Radio with a 34-20 Vols prediction in this game.
For me, I think the Vols certainly can win this game, and right now I’ll even go as far as to say that they should, though I may amend that after the first few weeks of action. Can I say that they will though? Not yet. It’s really tough to pick against Florida until I see it happen in this series.