Tennessee’s start to their 2019 season hasn’t gone anywhere close to how Vol fans were expecting it to go. At worst, Vol fans thought Tennessee would be 2-1 heading into this weekend’s game against the Florida Gators.
Instead, the Vols are 1-2 and are on the brink of losing control of their season.
The Vols opened up the year with a shocking 38-30 loss to Georgia State out of the Sun Belt Conference. They followed that up with a second half collapse against BYU and ended up losing to the Cougars in double overtime by a score of 29-26. Tennessee bounced back with a 45-0 victory over UT-Chattanooga over the weekend, but the Vols are far from where UT fans were hoping three weeks into the season.
Despite that brutal beginning, Florida head coach Dan Mullen isn’t about to overlook the Vols.
Mullen spoke during the weekly SEC coaches teleconference on Wednesday, and he was asked about the Gators’ upcoming opponent, the Tennessee Volunteers. While the Vols have lost more than they’ve won to start the season, Mullen still thinks UT is more talented than their record would suggest.
“I think, one, they’re a talented group. They’re young. They have some new players getting out there, but they have a lot of talent across the board,” Mullen said of Tennessee. “And if you look at how the year has gone, they’re a much better team than they’re getting some credit for.”
Part of Tennessee’s issue to start the season, as Mullen sees it, is that one of their opponents — BYU — is better than people expected them to be. The Gators’ second-year head coach also believes the Vols are only going to get better as the season goes along because of all the youth on their roster.
“You look at it, they’re beating BYU, and a fluke play at the end of the game allows BYU to tie it and go to overtime,” Mullen explained. “Then, all of a sudden a week later, BYU is beating Southern Cal. So that’s like, okay, that team is a little different than maybe we thought. So you look at the talent (the Vols) have, they have some skill players at receiver and running back. They have a quarterback that can make plays. They have a lot of young talented guys on defense that play. They roll guys through, and they play with depth.
“I think maybe some of the criticism they’ve got early this year might not be as justified as people think with the young players and talent they have. As they continue to grow, they’re going to have a pretty good year.”
Despite returning a lot of experience from last year’s team, Tennessee has opted to play a lot of younger players more often than some of the more veteran players on the roster. That’s due to the fact that most of UT’s younger players are more athletic and have a higher upside than some of the returning players from last season, and more and more of those youthful Vols have seen more and more playing time as the season has progressed. That’s not likely to change, either.
Freshmen like Henry To’o To’o, Eric Gray, Warren Burrell, Wanya Morris, Darnell Wright, and Quavaris Crouch have all either started or played a large amount of snaps in Tennessee’s first three games of the season. Other freshmen such as Roman Harrison, Ramel Keyton, and Tyus Fields have all flashed potential when on the field as well.
That also doesn’t include the second-year players who have seen the field more for Tennessee this season, such as Cedric Tillman, Greg Emerson, Kurott Garland, Jeremy Banks, John Mincey, and others.
The No. 9 Gators have struggled with their two Power Five opponents they’ve played this season, having to come from behind to beat both Miami and Kentucky to start the year. But Florida is undefeated, and Tennessee has lost two of their first three games. Public perception of the two programs couldn’t be more different.
But Mullen isn’t letting that perception change how he feels about the Vols, and he’s not going to underestimate them when the two teams play on Saturday.