After much consternation, I picked Tennessee to beat Florida when we did our game-by-game picks in the preseason. While that went against my vow to ever pick the Vols again in this series until they win, it just made too much sense.
UT’s veteran offensive line was finally going to be equipped to handle a Florida defense that was coming off a shellacking in the Citrus Bowl, and the Florida offense was going to have little chance to move the ball against Cam Sutton, Darrin Kirkland Jr., Jalen Reeves-Maybin, and a defensive line that would surely have about 20 sacks by this point in the season.
Things have obviously changed a bit. I still absolutely think Tennessee can, and probably should, win this game. I just don’t have enough confidence anymore to break my vow.
The issues start with the offensive line in my mind. I don’t know exactly how good Florida defensive front is due to the level of competition that it has faced thus far, but I think it will have an edge against UT’s O-line unless there’s vast improvement from the Vols. Maybe Chance Hall, who I like a lot, brings that, but that’s a lot to ask from one guy who has been injured. If Florida’s defensive front controls the line of scrimmage, it’s going to make life nearly impossible for all of UT’s offensive weapons.
On the other side, I’m not overly-impressed with Florida’s offensive pieces, but the injuries to Kirkland and Sutton are absolute killers. Getting Reeves-Maybin back in all likelihood in a huge boon, but Jim McElwain is great at scheming to attack weaknesses. I think the injuries leave the Vols with some places vulnerable for attack. Bob Shoop will have to work some magic to overcome that.
The key for Tennessee will be to get after Austin Appleby (or whoever is under center), create big plays, and then do enough offensively to keep Florida’s athletic bunch off balance. But there’s a balance that must be struck. Since Florida isn’t incredibly explosive on offense, you can’t give them anything easy either. That means every blitz, every trick play or any other gamble has to be extremely measured.
The only thing I’m pretty certain about is that it will be a relatively low-scoring game that will go into the fourth quarter. Tennessee will have all the help in the world from 102,455, and should have an opportunity to win this game. Can the Vols do it? I think they absolutely can. I just can’t predict that they will yet.
Pick: Florida 20-17
MVP: Florida WR Antonio Callaway
If the Gators win, they’re going to need to hit a couple big plays on offense. I think Callaway, who absolutely ripped UT’s heart out in The Swamp last year, has the best chance to do it. I like his potential matchups in this game. Emmanuel Moseley struggled against Ohio last week. Justin Martin is a bit banged up. Baylen Buchanan, while promising, is still unproven. Shoop will bring pressure at some point, and when he does, UT’s secondary will have to cover Callaway in man, and get him on the ground if he makes the catch.
It’s time to finally make this pick. And after literally months of changing my mind on this pick nearly every day…I still don’t know what to do.
My gut and my brain are telling me two different things. Even my brain is telling me two different things depending on how you look at it. Tennessee has the talent edge overall in this one in my opinion. From top to bottom, I think the Vols have the Gators beat in overall talent. But when it comes to coaching, at least on the offensive side of the ball, I think Tennessee is out-matched.
And therein lies my dilemma.
Tennessee’s main weakness this season, aside from general sloppy play, has been the offensive line. Florida’s front seven has been dominant to start the season thus far. They’ve done their damage against lesser competition, but they’re still an extremely talented and dangerous group. Even if Chance Hall is able to make his season debut for the Vols and play significant snaps, I don’t think that will be enough to provide consistent protection for Josh Dobbs.
Then there’s Florida’s quarterback situation. Starter Luke Del Rio is supposed to be out of this one (even though there are rumors he could still suit up and play), meaning backup Austin Appleby will be getting the nod for the Gators. Generally, the Vols have struggled against backup Florida quarterbacks, but that’s been when the backup has come in mid-game. This time, the backup is starting the game.
We also have Checker Neyland, CBS, Shake Neyland, the Smokey Grays, the Pat Summitt eye black, and College GameDay all here for one game. All we’re missing is Peyton Manning riding out on a white stallion to resurrect the corpse of General Neyland.
I’ve gone with my emotions the past two years when I’ve been forced to put my pick for this game in writing. I’ve picked the Vols the last two seasons in close ones. And that’s how I’ve been leaning for most of this summer.
Then the season started.
I honestly don’t know how to pick this one. But I have to. And this time, I’m going with my head.
Pick: Florida 19-17
MVP: Jalen Reeves-Maybin
This one is going to be a defensive one regardless of who wins in my opinion. That’s why I think senior linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin will be your MVP for Tennessee even if they lose. JRM has had to deal with a lot of adversity in his first three games this season, but he’s battled through it and should be ready to go against Florida. Expect him to be fired up and chomping at the bit to make a statement in this one.
Well, we made it.
The Florida game. And Knoxville is about ready to blow a gasket getting ready for the showdown in Neyland Stadium on Saturday. Between College GameDay coming to town, Checker Neyland, and busting out the Smokey gray uni’s they are pulling out all the stops. Heck, maybe they’ll even bring back “Third down for what” just for this game.
Maybe that last one is a stretch.
The point is, Tennessee is leaving no stone unturned to get the fans and players ready for this game.
Going in to the first quarter, I expect a lot of early game nerves to hit. Neyland will be very loud and that will play a factor for both teams. New Florida quarterback Austin Appleby will be pressured early and often by Tennessee’s pass-rush and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a couple of sacks or turnovers in the first quarter.
The biggest question for the Vols is going to be the offensive line. They get Chance Hall back who will, at the very least, see plenty of playing time at right tackle even if he doesn’t get the start. And with Florida leading the nation in team sacks with 16, the Vols better find a way to protect Josh Dobbs quickly because they will undoubtedly bring pressure.
On the defensive side of the ball, it’s definitely cringing for Vol fans to know Cam Sutton will miss this game with an injury – especially if someone can’t contain stud Gators receiver Antonio Callaway. Luckily, they do get Jalen Reeves-Maybin back and his presence should help Tennessee’s defense against Florida’s run attack, which produces an average of 202 yards per game.
Let’s be honest here. The chances of Tennessee winning this game by 30 are about as likely as seeing our own Erik Ainge suit up to play defensive line. But the truth of the matter is, if you want to be a winner, you have to start talking like a winner. And winners don’t lose confidence.
Although I admit my preseason confidence has been tested, I am sticking to my original belief that Tennessee wins this game. Streak over. Period.
Pick: Tennessee 34-27
MVP: Josh Dobbs
Tennessee may have lost the game last year, but Dobbs was still the best player on the field leading the Vols in passing, rushing and receiving. And while I don’t exactly expect Dobbs to pass for 300 yards against Jalen Tabor and that nasty Gator secondary, I think his legs will be the reason Tennessee wins this game. Dobbs will have around 120 yards passing and a touchdown with another 80 on the ground and two more TDs.