Tennessee (2-1) at Florida (3-0)
Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET
Ben Hill Griffin Stadium (88,548) • Gainesville, Florida
Series Record: Florida Leads 25-19
Setting the table
Both teams need this game. Florida is 3-0 but they haven’t played a team of Tennessee’s caliber. The Vols are 2-1 and trying to erase the memory of a blown 17 point lead over Oklahoma. Oh, and then there’s the decade long winning streak to discuss. First year head coach Jim McElwain certainly doesn’t want to see the streak come to an end during his first meeting with the Vols – even Ron Zook beat Tennessee in his first year at Florida and the recently fired Will Muschamp posted a 4-0 over Tennessee. Butch Jones, however, needs this game more than McElwain. He’s looking for his first win over one of Tennessee’s big SEC rivals (Florida, Georgia and Alabama) and his team needs a victory to prove they’ll be able to contend in the SEC East this year (and beyond).
Who has the edge
When Tennessee throws…
Even with Jalen Tabor suspended for the game, the Gators have one of the better secondaries in the nation. Sophomore corner Quincy Wilson will replace Tabor – he actually started over Tabor during Florida’s win over Kentucky last weekend. Make no mistake, Tabor is a loss, but Wilson, Hargreaves, Brian Poole (nickel), Marcus Maye (safety) and Keanu Neal (safety) bring a ton of experience and athleticism to the table. Joshua Dobbs hasn’t proven he can beat a talented secondary down the field or from the pocket. This is a big “prove it” game for him. The Vol receivers struggled mightily with Florida’s secondary last year and they were plagued by the same inability to get open against press coverage against a much less talented Oklahoma defensive backfield two weeks ago. They’ve got to grow up in a hurry. Pig Howard’s status as questionable hurts the Vols here – he was one of the few UT receivers who found success (six receptions for 79 yards) against Florida last year. Howard also had four receptions for 75 yards and a touchdown in his last trip to The Swamp. The ability of Tennessee’s offensive line to protect will also prove key – Florida man handled them in Knoxville last year. Tennessee HAS to find a way block Jonathan Bullard no matter where he lines up to have a shot. Edge: Florida
When Tennessee runs…
Florida isn’t quite as good up front as they were last season and the Vols will have some chances here. The middle of Florida’s defense is still stout but Tennessee should be able to find some success toward the boundary. Jalen Hurd, Alvin Kamara and Joshua Dobbs have been very good when allowed to get outside on sweeps, stretch plays, off tackle runs and the like. They should have some chances to make plays against Florida in that area. Beating the Gators up the gut isn’t likely as Florida still holds a physical edge at the point of attack. Florida held ECU and Kentucky, two probable bowl teams, to just 1.6 yards per carry. Dobbs is averaging just 2.7 yards per carry against above average defenses. Can he get it going against Florida? That’s a huge key for Tennessee. Edge: Florida
When Florida throws…
It’s easy to forget how abysmal Florida was offensively last season. Driskel threw three bad picks and completed just 11 passes against Tennessee in 2014 – Florida’s offense isn’t “good” by any stretch this year, but it’s unlikely Gator starter Will Grier will be THAT bad. Florida’s offensive line is abysmal and UT’s defensive front should get plenty of pressure on Grier. He’s no Treon Harris with his legs, but Grier is Florida’s second leading rusher and has enough athleticism to escape pressure and advance drives. . As far as throwing the football, watch for the Gators to get the ball out of Grier’s hand quickly. The don’t have a ton of talent at the skill positions, but they’ve been more effective than they were last season. McElwain can probably scheme his way to a couple big plays this weekend but the Gator passing attack, and offense as a whole, will probably have trouble sustaining drives. Tennessee has to account for Demarcus Robinson and Brandon Powell – they’re Florida’s biggest weapons on the outside. Tight ends DeAndre Goolsby and C’yontai Lewis have proven to be dangerous this year as well. Mismatches on Vol linebackers or safeties could prove troublesome, especially in the red zone. Edge: Tennessee
When Florida runs…
The Vol defense largely bottled up Oklahoma’s talented backfield a couple of weeks ago and Florida has struggled to run the ball this season. Kelvin Taylor is a more than capable SEC running back but the offensive line in front of him has been putrid for much of the season. Florida may hit a couple of decent plays in the ground game but they shouldn’t be able to find any lasting success against Tennessee’s front seven. Edge: Tennessee
On special teams…
For the first time in recent history, the Tennessee Volunteers have a decided advantage over the Gators when it comes to special teams. You read that correctly. Trevor Daniel leads the SEC with a 47.63 yard average per punt while Florida’s Johnny Townsend is averaging just over 41 yards per punt. Advantage Vols. Though Aaron Medley got off to a bit off a rough start this season, he’s been better than Florida placekicker Austin Hardin. Florida’s junior kicker is just 3 of 6 on field goals and has already missed an extra point. For his career, he’s 14-28 on field goal attempts while Medley is 24/33. Advantage Vols. Evan Berry leads the nation in kick return average (45.8) while Florida’s Brandon Powell, a onetime Tennessee commit, has made some ill advised decisions when bringing the ball out of the endzone. He averages 21.86 yards per return. Advantage Tennessee. The Vols have also been better over the last couple of seasons at kick and punt coverage. Cameron Sutton and Alvin Kamara have both proven to be explosive at punt returner this season. Antonio Callaway, who returns punts for Florida, has been a bright spot for the Gators – but both Kamara and Sutton have been more effective. Edge: Tennessee
What Florida is thinking
We know how to beat Tennessee. Though we may not be as explosive on defense as we were last year, we’re still really good and won’t have any issues bottling up Dobbs and dominating UT’s offensive line. Our secondary should, again, smother their receivers. Perhaps most importantly, Jeff Driskel is gone and Will Grier, under McElwain’s eye, can’t be as bad as Driskel was against Tennessee last season. Our offense will probably struggle, but we’ll have several chances to make some plays. And we’re playing at home. In what should be a close game, we like our chances.
What Tennessee is thinking
We’re better than this team and should beat them no matter where we play. We had a more talented Florida team beat last year and let it slip away, but we’re ready to win this one and prove that we’re here to compete in the SEC East right now. If we play our game, we’ll wear Florida down and win by two possessions.
What RTI is thinking
There is no reason Tennessee should lose this game. The Vols have more playmakers on offense and will field a defense that should be able to make things tough on Florida’s young offense. For once, the Vols also have the advantage in the special teams game. But we’ve been here before. Tennessee should have beaten Oklahoma – they were the better team for much of the game and we know how that turned out. They also should have beaten Florida last year and Vanderbilt in 2013. This team just hasn’t been able to get over the hump in games they should win. This one will probably be an ugly slugfest and both teams should have their chances. It’ll come down to who executes and coaches better.