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Preview: No. 14 Tennessee vs. No. 19 Florida


No. 14 Tennessee (3-0) vs. No. 19 Florida (3-0, 1-0 SEC)

Saturday, 3:30 pm ET

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


Series Record: Florida leads 26-19

 Setting the table

It’s easy to pile too much hyperbole on an early-season game, but from Tennessee’s standpoint, there’s a strong argument that this is one of the biggest regular-season games in recent history for the program.

Simply put: This is what Butch Jones came to Knoxville to do. The progress on and off the field has been tangible over the past three years, but now it’s time to win the big games. And with an 11-game losing streak to Florida hanging around the next of this program, none may be bigger than this matchup with the Gators.

The stage will be huge. It’s the 3:30 CBS game, College GameDay will be in Knoxville, Checker Neyland is in effect and the Smokey gray alternate uniforms are coming out.

The Vols will be without some keep players due to injury, but Florida is rolling into town with backup quarterback and Purdue graduate transfer Austin Appleby at the helm. There will be no excuses for the Vols. The stage is set, the talent is there and Neyland should be a madhouse. Style points aren’t important in this one. Jones and the Vols simply must find a way to get the W.

 Who has the edge

When Tennessee throws…

One of the huge stories of the offseason was the development of Joshua Dobbs as a passer. Through three games, the senior quarterback has made some plays in this area, but the consistency simply hasn’t been there. And he’ll be tested on a whole new level on Saturday against a Florida secondary that might be one of the best in the nation. UT villain and resident Florida trash talker Jalen Tabor is one of the best covers corners in the country. His counterpart, Quincy Wilson, along with the rest of the Florida secondary, is talented as well.

The Vols completed just 12 passes in The Swamp last year. Two of them came on trick plays. So history indicates that the Vols probably won’t find consistent success through the air, but it might just take one or two completed deep shots change the complexion of the game. But to hit those, Dobbs will need time. Can this UT O-line, which has struggled through three games, hold up against a Florida team that leads the nation in sacks? That remains to be seen, but it has to make UT fans nervous. Edge: Florida 

When Tennessee runs…

The Gators haven’t given up anything on the ground so far this year. They also haven’t seen an attack like what UT has. The Vols put together one of their best rushing attacks in years against the Gators last year – piling up 254 yards on the road in Gainesville. Florida must tackle better this year or UT can put up big numbers again. But just like in the passing game, UT’s O-line needs to neutralize a talented and aggressive Florida defensive front to have some success. The Vols are optimistic that Chance Hall will be back in the lineup, and that might help solidify this group. But it will be a huge challenge regardless who is on the field. Edge: Slightly to Tennessee 

When Florida throws…

UT will be without Cam Sutton in the starting lineup for the first time in the Butch Jones era. The Vols need Baylen Buchanan, Justin Martin, Emmanuel Moseley, Rashaan Gaulden and Malik Foreman to step up in his absence. Appleby moves well and has a big arm, but he’s proven to be turnover-prone in his time starting for Purdue. And regardless what he says, he’s never played in an environment like Neyland Stadium. The biggest fear for UT should be Appleby getting the ball out quickly to the likes of Antonio Callaway and Brandon Powell, and then them breaking tackles in the open field for a big play. If UT can limit that, I don’t know that Appleby and this Florida O-line will be able to set up shop and pick apart UT down the field. The key for UT will be to get pressure, force Appleby into quick decisions and then capitalize on his mistakes.  Edge: Slightly to Tennessee 

When Florida runs…

Florida – using a four-man rotation at running back – has over 200 rushing yards per game on the season thus far, but again, level of competition has been a huge factor in that. This group of running backs is talented, but largely unproven on the big stage. None of them took a single carry against the Vols last year. The Vols have been decent against the run so far this year, but have been susceptible to some big plays. It’s difficult to envision the Gators regularly gashing UT on the ground, but limiting the huge play will be key for the Vols. Florida’s backs are good enough to make you pay if you miss an assignment or take a bad angle, but not proven enough yet to give the Gators the decided advantage. Edge: Even 

On special teams…

This is a great matchup. UT’s dominance on special teams has been mitigated a bit by the loss of Cam Sutton in addition to teams kicking away from Evan Berry, but there are still plenty of playmakers in this phase of the game for the Vols. Florida, however, is pretty stacked too, with Callaway and Powell in the return game and a kicker in Eddy Pineiro who can regularly put it in the end zone for touchbacks and is a threat from 50+ on field goals.

This game also features arguably the two best punters in the league in Trevor Daniel and Johnny Townsend. Special teams will be a battle, and whoever can makes some plays in this area may have the edge in what could be a tight, low-scoring game. Edge: Even

 Best-case scenario for UT 

We’ll keep it pretty simple this week. Any win is the best-case scenario for the Vols. Whether that be 2-0 or 56-0, the Vols need to find a way to get in the win column in this series. Of course a blowout would be ideal for UT, but it doesn’t matter if it’s pretty – just get it done.

 Worst-case scenario for UT

On the flip side, any loss would be crushing to this team and this fanbase. The Vols are tired of close calls, bad breaks and excuses in this series. Any loss will be unacceptable.

 How we think it’ll play out

We’ll have our official predications posted before the game, but, in general, the RTI staff is split about how this one is going to play out. Most agree it will likely be a lower-scoring game with both offenses struggling to consistently move the ball. Tennessee has the talent to win this game, but can the Vols finally break through on this huge stage? That’s the big question.

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