Editor’s note: For big games this season, Daniel Lewis will put together a blueprint for how Tennessee can have its best chance to knock off that week’s opponent. It’s written from a Tennessee coach’s mindset and isn’t necessarily representative of how RTI predicts the game to go.
Offense: Few units in the country face as much pressure as Tennessee’s offense this week. The weight of a 10-year losing streak, the frustrations of a heartbreaking double-OT loss to Oklahoma and a lot of the goals for the 2015 season for Tennessee rest on the shoulder of the Vols’ offense.
But, ironically, the key for Tennessee will be to forget all of that and go play and coach loose. Yes, the Gators’ are loaded on defense, but Tennessee finally has the pieces on offense to at least put together some drives against them. And like a batting lineup in baseball that knows their pitcher will be holding the other team down to just a few runs, this offense should play with the confidence that if they can score just a few times, Tennessee has a great chance to win this game.
It starts, as it always seems to in this series, with the run game for the Vols. Tennessee brings its best running attack to Gainesville in several years and history says that, since 2000, the team that has rushed for more yards in this game will most likely win. Alvin Kamara needs to get his touches – maybe 10 to 15 – but this is an opportunity to prove that Jalen Hurd is among the best of the best in the SEC. He became one of the first runners against Oklahoma to gain 100 yards in a couple years, and he needs to do the same against Florida.
The Gators, while stout in the front seven, did show a few leaks in run defense against Kentucky, allowing RB Boom Williams to gain 80 yards on 16 carries (5.0 ypc). So the chances will be there. This offensive line needs to step up like it did in the first half of the Oklahoma game. And if the Tennessee can block the front four with some consistency, Florida will start bringing the pressure, and that’s where UT must rise to the occasion. While the Florida pressure overwhelmed UT last year, in part, due to a stationary quarterback, Dobbs must use his feet to buy time and then find the weak spots in the defense.
I would stay away from CB Vernon Hargreaves III whenever possible. He’s just not a guy you want to test too much. But outside of him, don’t be afraid to take a little bit of a chance and trust your big receivers (paging Marquez North, Josh Malone & Jauan Jennings) to go up and grab a 50/50 type of ball a few times. Sure, turnover margin will be a huge factor in this game and the Vols can’t be careless with the football. But Tennessee can live with an interception on a deep ball if they take some shots to try to loosen up the Florida defense a little bit.
The Vols must keep Florida off balance. Offensive variety will be key. That’s how ECU was able to have some success against the Gators in Week 2. Run inside, outside, zone read, draw, screen, quick passes and mix in the occasional shot play once they think they have the shorter stuff figured out. Predictability will kill a team against the Gators. They can only really be neutralized when off balance.
The phrase “momentum play” has been thrown around a ton this week, and if the offense can hit a couple of those, that would be huge for Tennessee. This is a series that, offensively especially, the Vols have played scared in. Regardless, there will be some adversity and things going against the Vols in The Swamp, so shake off any mistakes and keep pushing.
And as long as this is a two-score game or less at any point, don’t take the foot off the accelerator until the very end.
Defense: While the pressure might be higher on Tennessee’s offense overall, the defense must step up as well. The talent and the matchups are there for the Vols to shut Florida’s offense down and hold the Gators to 14-17 points, if not less.
For years, Tennessee has seen Florida torch its offensive line with superior athletes on the defensive line, now it’s time for Tennessee to return the favor. Florida’s offensive line simply isn’t that good. It is what it is. There’s some talent there overall, but the experience level is low with really just one of the starting five (Trip Thurman) having been battle tested in the SEC with regularity.
With the suspension to backup quarterback Treon Harris, the Gators essentially have one option at QB in Will Grier, who, while athletic, isn’t quite the scrambler that Harris is. There should be nowhere to hide against a defensive front that at least has the potential to cause a lot of havoc in the backfield. Florida always has athletes, but there’s no go-to wide receiver or running back that’s emerged as a game-changer yet.
If I’m Tennessee, I’m ok to trust my secondary in some man coverage and get after Grier and make him consistently beat me. We spoke about momentum plays on the offensive side of the ball, but that could certainly come from the defense (or special teams) as well for Tennessee. Putting pressure on Grier and seeing if you can rip the ball out or force an ill-advised throw might be the best way to get that opportunity. While Tennessee’s offense certainly has a chance to move the ball some, defensively, Tennessee needs to have the mentality that it needs to create a big play itself to be sure that the Vols win this game.
Watch out for tight end DeAndre Goolsby as well. He’s somewhat of an X-factor for Florida and when teams stack the box or come too hard, they look for him to slip out and make a big play, so identifying him before each snap will be important and perhaps having Jalen Reeves-Maybin on him in man coverage can limit his effectiveness.
The Vols must play complimentary football, but the defense has to suffocate Florida’s offense and keep the crowd out of the game as much as possible. The Gators won’t be this weak on this side of the ball for long, so this is the year to dominate and get out there with a streak-busting win.