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Prediction Panel: Tennessee vs. Florida

Photo by Anne Newman/RTI

The RTI team makes their picks for the Vols’ match-up with the Florida Gators this upcoming Saturday. Managing editor Nathanael Rutherford, staff writer Ben McKee, and contributor Charley Collier all share their predictions for this Saturday’s contest.

Nathanael’s Pick

I feel like every single year, I go through the same debate this time of year. For the last half decade it feels like, this game has been extremely evenly matched. And that’s not always been because the two teams have been quality teams; in fact, it’s been the opposite of that for a lot of the last five years.

Regardless, I’m expecting another close contest on Saturday.

The Vols and Gators have played it close the last four times they’ve faced off. Florida won by a point in 2014 and 2015, Tennessee won by 10 and had to do that in comeback fashion in 2016, and the Gators won by six points on a Hail Mary last season. I fully expect this year to be another game decided by 10 points or less.

My concerns about this game have been well-documented all week. Tennessee’s lack of pass rush is my main concern, and the inconsistency on the offensive line worries me too. But luckily for the Vols, the Gators have also had troubles on the offensive line, and their front seven has been far from dominant as well. And that Gator secondary is just waiting to be exposed.

Unfortunately for the Vols, star linebacker CeCe Jefferson returned for the Gators last weekend, and linebacker David Reese will be a full-go this weekend too. That will drastically change the power and scheme of Florida’s defense, and this could be a very different defense than what we saw against Kentucky, a defense that gave up over 300 yards of rushing to the Wildcats.

Can Tennessee establish the run and allow Jarrett Guarantano to do more on offense? Yes. Will they actually be able to do all that? I have my doubts.

I’ve wavered back and forth on this game all week, and ultimately Tennessee’s question marks are giving me a lot of pause for picking them. But when I look at the intangibles, almost all of those add up in the Vols’ favor.

Neyland Stadium will be loud, obnoxious, and extremely distracting. I think both Pruitt and Tyson Helton will have new wrinkles on offense and defense they’ll roll out, and this will be Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks’ first time starting in Neyland and first time starting in front of over 100,000 fans.

If, and that’s a big if in my opinion, the Vols can find a way to harass Franks more than they did Will Grier in the season opener, then UT’s young secondary should be able to hold their own (for the most part) against Florida’s talented wide receivers.

I don’t feel very confident about my pick, but here it is.

Pick: Tennessee, 20-19

MVP: Jarrett Guarantano, Tennessee QB

If Tennessee wins this game, it will be because Jarrett Guarantano was clean with the ball and made plays when he needed to. I don’t expect him to throw for 300 yards or even 250 yards, but I think he’ll be the most important player on the field for the Vols (aside from their offensive line) when the offense is on the field. And I expect this game to be low scoring, which means limiting turnovers is key. And Guarantano has been good at that so far this year.

Ben’s Pick

Tennessee and Florida may not be what they once were from a national perspective, but once again, it’s the most important game on the schedule. It’s just for different reasons this time. Instead of deciding the SEC East, Tennessee must win this game in order to reach a bowl game. A loss to Florida would really put the Vols behind the eight-ball in terms of racking up wins this season.

The good news for Tennessee is that while it’s in the basement of the SEC, so is Florida. Both teams are quite similar, as they share many of the same strengths and weaknesses. For Tennessee, it’s going to come down to the trenches. If the Vols win this game, it’ll be because they were able to create a pass-rush and the offensive line found consistency in the running game.

Ultimately, I think Tennessee wins this football game because of two reasons. The two quarterbacks, Jarrett Guarantano and Feleipe Franks.

For Franks, he got off to an awful start against Colorado State, starting 0-for-6 with an interception. He would bounce back and finish strong, but blame the early struggles on the Rams throwing looks at him that he did not expect. Franks was flustered, and I think that’s exactly what Jeremy Pruitt’s schemes will do to the sophomore. Especially when you add in over 100,000 crazy fans. The atmosphere will get to Franks and, as a result, I believe Tennessee’s defense will capitalize by forcing a turnover or two.

With Franks struggling, I think Guarantano has his first defining moment as a Vol. Every UT player is remembered for what they do against Florida, and Guarantano is ready for the moment. Granted, Guarantano playing well could also be impacted by how well the offensive line plays. If the o-line can just be average, I think Guarantano picks apart a struggling Florida secondary. He has the weapons at receiver, running back, and tight end to move the offense up and down the field. The offensive line needs to play well enough to give Guarantano just enough time to make a play, and I think they will.

Complementing Guarantano, I think the running backs will have a nice outing as well. Florida has struggled to tackle this season, and as a result, I think you’ll see Tennessee’s group of running backs continue to turn 3-yard gains into 6-yard gains.

Winning the turnover battle, running the football, and Guarantano making big plays with his arm will be why Tennessee wins a close one in front of the 1998 National Championship team.

Pick: Tennessee, 24-21

MVP: Jarrett Guarantano, Tennessee QB

I laid out above why I think Guarantano will have a nice game against Florida, but I think one of the biggest reasons why is something that I didn’t mention: the fact that Guarantano takes care of the football. He’s yet to turn the football over this season, and in what I expect to be a sloppy rivalry game, that’s critical.

Charley’s Pick:

This is such an interesting match-up to me for so many reasons. First, it is a huge rivalry game, and Neyland is bound to be electric Saturday night. But also, both teams are in their first season under a new head coach, with each coach in some sort of rebuild. Because of this, as well as the general relationship between the two programs, Jeremy Pruitt and Dan Mullen are going to find themselves being compared to each other a lot in the next few years. Saturday’s game is the first edition of what could become a coaching rivalry.

On paper, this game could really go either way. Tennessee’s offensive line has struggled this year, but they will be up against a front seven in Florida that hasn’t been very good themselves. Whichever unit can win that match-up will have a big upper hand in this game. Right now, I ever-so-slightly lean towards the Vols in that match-up. The unit has gotten better in every game, they have done an above average job pass blocking, and they have the best player on the entire field in Trey Smith. Tennessee has plenty of play-makers on offense, and they need to figure out the best ways to get the ball in their hands in order to be successful. Kentucky was able to move the ball fairly well against Florida using a lot of misdirection and play action, and they got the quarterback involved in the ground game. It will be interesting to see what offensive coordinator Tyson Helton may decide to take away from that film. If the run game isn’t working, he can’t be afraid to air the ball out some. The passing game has looked great through three games, and they should have a chance to make plays against an average Gator secondary.

This will probably be a low scoring affair, as each defense is better than the opposing offense. Through three games this season, Florida’s offense ranks just 13th in the SEC, producing only 382.3 yards of offense per game. However, they still have managed to run the ball decently well and have some real threats on the offense. Feleipe Franks is not a good quarterback, but if he gets all day to throw the ball then he will look like one. The Vols must do a better job getting to the quarterback, and if they can’t do that regularly, then Pruitt will need to dial up some blitzes to pressure Franks. He is absolutely the kind of quarterback that will make mistakes under pressure. Tennessee has a talented secondary with plenty of ball skills, but they are young. They will need some help from the pass rush so they can have a big day. I don’t think it’s out of the question to think that Tennessee could force two or even three turnovers.

In a game this close, it will likely be decided by the little things. Florida may have a physiological edge, and they have the more experienced head coach, but Tennessee has the better special teams and quarterback. Ultimately, it may just be the home field advantage of a night game in Neyland that tips this one just barely in the Vols’ favor. I’ll take Tennessee in a low-scoring game.

Pick: Tennessee 20-13

MVP: Jarrett Guarantano, Tennessee QB

If the Vols win this game then that means Guarantano will have a good game. I wasn’t very high on him in the offseason, but through three games he has certainly proved me wrong. Tyson Helton is known to be a great developer of quarterbacks, and his impact has been evident. He will have an efficient night passing and throw for at least one score.

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