Tennessee heads down to The Swamp with a team that has every bit of the talent needed to end the streak to the Gators and get this gorilla off its back against a hated rival. Florida has some major questions. The Gators are down, a lot of experts are picking Tennessee and even Vegas has flipped in favor of the Vols this week.
How many times have we seen this script before?
All too many times for Tennessee fans. And that’s where the trepidation among the fanbase is coming from this week. Yes, you can break down the matchups and see where Tennessee has some clear edges. True, this Florida offense might be among the worst in the modern era of the Gators’ program. And, indeed, Tennessee absolutely has the talent on both sides of the ball to get it done in a game I truly think the Vols should win.
But 10 years in a row of anything can drive somebody mad, and, in my mind, almost always puts the onus on the team that hasn’t gotten it done in that long to prove that it can step up and do it. So I made this pick back in 2012, when I swore off picking Tennessee ever again in this series until I saw a victory from the Vols. I buckled last year. After picking Florida in the preseason, I got caught up in the hype, the emotion and the notion that Neyland and Tennessee would simply overwhelm a shaky Florida team in Knoxville. That game, yet again, affirmed to me why I have to go back to my original pledge from 2012.
It simply doesn’t matter, Florida finds a way to win in this series until Tennessee can prove otherwise. The onus is also on Butch Jones to show that he can guide the Vols to victory in games like this as well. He’s 3-6 so far at Tennessee against Power 5 opponents in one-possession games. The Oklahoma performance a couple weeks ago, obviously, did not instill a ton of confidence in the Vols’ ability to finish against a program with roughly similar talent.
And then there’s the road factor. I don’t think this will be a vintage Swamp atmosphere necessarily, but with just one true road win in a hostile environment (SC, 2014) so far for Jones, he and the Vols need to prove they can do that with some regularity as well.
But I’m not just blindly making this pick based on history either. The Gators are really good on the defensive side of the ball. Say what you want about Will Muschamp, but he got talent on that side of the ball and left Jim McElwain and his staff absolutely loaded there. Even without suspended CB Jalen Tabor, the Gators have top-shelf talent at all three levels of the defense. I don’t know if UT’s line can block the defensive front, if the receivers can get open or if Joshua Dobbs will be able to make all the needed throws against that unit.
So while I have very low confidence in Florida’s offense as well, and that could be the Gators’ undoing in this game, I see both sides really struggling to move the ball with consistency. That means a low-scoring, one-possession type of game in my mind. I think the opportunity, yet again, will be there for Tennessee to get that elusive win.
I have to take a spin on @LoneNutVolFan’s wheel in this one though:
For those of you watching from home this weekend, here's your playing card for Vols vs. Gators. pic.twitter.com/UZT9T59O8R
— LNVF (@LoneNutVolFan) September 24, 2015
I landed on “Unknown Gator Has Career Day.” Watch out for Josh Grady (converted WR who is the acting backup quarterback), cornerback Quincy Wilson or tight end DeAndre Goolsby. Those are some of my slightly-under-the-radar candidates to step up and make a big play for the Gators at the end, leaving the Vols with 11 straight losses in this series and a ton of questions going forward.
Pick: Florida 17-10
MVP: DL Jonathan Bullard
I’m picking him more as a representative of the entire Florida defense, because if the Gators win, it will be in large part because of a fantastic effort by that unit. If Florida’s offense is able to move the ball consistently and pile up a ton of points, I either underestimated Jim McElwain or overestimated Tennessee’s defense. Florida’s defense will need to have a strong performance to make sure the streak lives on. Watch out for Bullard individually as well though, as he’s coming off a two-sack performance against Kentucky and could be the latest in a long line of Florida defensive linemen who have terrorized Tennessee.
Oh. Look. It’s this game again. The game that has broken the hearts of Vol fans for the last ten years. The game where things just never seem to go right for the team in orange and white. The game where everything tends to somehow, magically, unexplainably fall into place for the team in blue. The game where dreams are crushed.
This week has been a little different, however. Butch Jones announced on Monday that Vol defensive tackle Danny O’Brien was reinstated to the team after serving a two-game suspension, while Florida announced on Wednesday that starting cornerback Jalen Tabor and backup quarterback Treon Harris would be suspended for Saturday’s game due to a violation of team rules. Could this mean that Tennessee’s luck is finally changing?
Offensively, Tennessee is likely to struggle at times to consistently move the ball against Florida’s defense. Even without Tabor and short a couple talented linebackers, the Gator defense is still stacked with talent. Johnathan Bullard, Cece Jefferson, Joey Ivey…etc. will make some plays against Tennessee’s offensive line, and Vernon Hargreaves will, essentially, lock down one half of the field from his cornerback spot. Can Tennessee’s receivers that aren’t being guarded by Hargreaves beat press coverage and make plays down the field? Can Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara find enough running room to make forward progress on the ground? The Vols have rushed for more than 100 yards against Florida just once in the last decade, and actually came in under the 50-yard mark in five of those years. Tennessee may have to pass to set up the run in this game, which is a worrisome task to imagine given Tennessee’s inconsistencies through the air.
Defensively, you have to love Tennessee’s matchups in this game. Florida is starting a redshirt freshman at quarterback in Will Grier who has never faced a defense like the one he’ll see on Saturday. Tennessee’s defensive line will have a huge advantage of a Gator defensive line that is bordering somewhere just north of terrible. Florida running backs will hit some plays, but I don’t see them routinely gashing the Vol defense on the ground. Florida lacks dynamic receivers across the board and the one they do have – Demarcus Robinson – has been inconsistent and limited due to mediocre quarterback play. DeAndre Goolsby is a solid option at tight end, and the Vols will have to account for him, but the Gators may need to leave him in to help in pass protection for most of the afternoon.
In conclusion, I really like Tennessee’s chances in this game…It is setting up so well for them that it’s almost scary. That said, I’ve picked them to win for a decade now, only to have sand thrown in my eyes every year. For that reason, and that reason alone, I can’t pick them to win this game. Tennessee IS THE BETTER TEAM, but I said last year that I wouldn’t pick them until they proved they could do it. And even though I talked myself out of it during the summer, I just can’t do it this week.
Boy, I hope I’m wrong.
Pick: Florida 17-10
MVP: Florida TE DeAndre Goolsby
Florida doesn’t have much, but they won’t need much on Saturday. I think Goolsby will have a handful of catches and a touchdown, which will probably be enough to make him the most important Gator on the field and the main reason they escape with yet another win.
This pick is an easy one. The Vols are the better team – I think all of us believe that. Tennessee rolls into Gainesville with more offensive talent than the Gators and an established coach/system. The Vols have more experience at quarterback and at a variety of positions.
Tennessee’s defense should smother Florida’s young, though improving, offense. Jalen Hurd, Joshua Dobbs and Alvin Kamara should be able to wear Florida down on the ground and win this one late. The Vols, finally, have the edge in every aspect of the special teams game…
But none of that matters until the Vols prove they can win the big game. Tennessee is 3-6 in one possession games against FBS teams under Butch Jones. The Vols are 1-12 against above average defenses in the same time period. Florida has a very good defense … this one is on the road. I tried to give Tennessee the benefit of the doubt in 2013 against Vanderbilt and they lost. I tried again last year against Florida and they lost. And a tried two weeks ago against Oklahoma and they lost.
I’m done giving them the benefit of the doubt. It’s time to prove it on the field or the trust of Vol nation will continue to quickly erode.
Pick: Florida 17-13
MVP: Florida QB Will Grier
The Vols lead late 13-10 before Florida QB Will Grier suddenly turns into Tom Brady and leads the Gators on a soul-crushing TD drive to beat the Vols. He’ll struggle all game but look like a Heisman winner late.