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What to Know: Tennessee at No. 9 Florida

(Photo By Austin Perryman/Tennessee Athletics)

Tennessee begins their SEC season on Saturday when they take on their heated rival, the Florida Gators.

The Vols (1-2) travel down to Gainesville to take on the No. 9 Gators (3-0, 1-0 SEC) for their annual SEC East showdown. Tennessee will be playing their first conference game of the season while Florida will be looking to improve to 2-0 in SEC play after taking down Kentucky last weekend.

Florida will be playing without starting quarterback Feleipe Franks for Saturday’s contest. Franks suffered a season-ending injury against Kentucky last weekend, and now head coach Dan Mullen turns his offense over to redshirt junior Kyle Trask. The experienced backup will be making his first career collegiate start on Saturday, but Mullen also plans to use redshirt freshman and former four-star prospect Emory Jones at QB as well.

Saturday will mark Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano’s first start in The Swamp. Guarantano played against Florida last season, but he was knocked out of the game in the third quarter after taking several brutal hits throughout the first three quarters. He finished that contest 7-of-18 for 164 yards and two interceptions.

The Vols have lost two-straight games to the Gators after ending an 11-game losing streak in 2016. Overall, Florida has won 13 of the last 14 games the two teams have played.

Here are the five biggest things to know when the Vols and Gators square off at noon Eastern on Saturday.

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Sack Attack

In Florida’s first game of the season, they harassed Miami redshirt freshman quarterback Jarren Williams non-stop. The Gators racked up 10 sacks against the Hurricanes in Week 1, thanks in part to an inexperienced Miami offensive line. The Hurricanes were playing several young linemen making their first start or playing in their first major action of their collegiate careers.

Sound familiar?

Tennessee will likely play or start two true freshmen offensive linemen on Saturday, and they’ll have another inexperienced lineman — K’Rojhn Calbert — likely manning the right tackle spot.

Florida feasted on Miami’s offensive line in Week 1, but they were held at bay by Kentucky’s strong O-line in their third game of the season. Tennessee’s offensive line is much closer to Miami’s than Kentucky’s, so getting the ball out quick and using draws and screens might be more in the game plan on Saturday than it has in UT’s previous three games.

Battle of Red Zone Mediocrity 

Neither the Gators nor the Vols have been very efficient in the red zone to start the season.

Taking out contests against FCS opponents, both Tennessee and Florida have been below average at scoring touchdowns when they get inside the opponent’s 20-yard-line. In games against Georgia State and BYU, Tennessee has managed to score a touchdown just four times in eight red zone trips (50 percent). Florida, meanwhile, has scored five touchdowns in nine red zone appearances (55.6 percent) in games against Miami and Kentucky.

Both teams have had to settle for field goals in the red zone far more often than they’d like. Tennessee has kicked four red zone field goals in 12 total trips while the Gators have kicked three field goals in 14 trips to the red zone. Both of those percentages rank in the bottom half of the SEC.

The Vols have at least been able to come away with points when they’ve gotten into the red zone, even if it’s just been field goals almost half the time. Tennessee has only failed to score once when in the red zone (against BYU). Florida has come away without points twice in the red zone, once against Miami and once against Kentucky. The Gators have scored in 12 of their 14 red zone possessions.

Guarantano vs. Florida’s Secondary

Despite Florida’s relentless pressure against Miami quarterback Jarren Williams, the redshirt freshman was still able to have a pretty good day against the Gators’ defense. He took 10 sacks, but he still completed 65.5 percent of his passes for 214 yards and a touchdown, and the Gators never intercepted him.

In fact, Florida’s secondary has been their weak point on defense so far this season.

The Gators haven’t been torched through the air yet this season, but they haven’t exactly been impressive, either. Florida was able to pick off three passes against Kentucky because Sawyer Smith was careless with the football, but he also tossed two touchdowns and totaled 267 yards through the air.

Against Miami and Kentucky combined, the Gators allowed an average of 240.5 passing yards and a completion percentage of 64.6 percent.

Jarrett Guarantano hasn’t been sharp to start the 2019 season, but he’s proven to be a more effective quarterback on the road than he has at home in his previous two seasons as a starting quarterback.

In 11 home starts in the 2017 and 2018 seasons, Guarantano completed 60.8 percent of his 176 pass attempts for an average of 143.2 yards per game. He tossed seven touchdowns and three interceptions in those 11 starts. On the road, however, Guarantano completed 63.1 percent of his 160 passes for an average of 183.8 yards per game. In five fewer starts, he threw just as many touchdowns on the road (7) as he did at home in 2017 and 2018, and he only threw two interceptions in his six road starts.

On the road, Guarantano has had three games where he threw for multiple touchdowns and eclipsed the 240-yard passing mark twice. Prior to the 2019 season, Guarantano had thrown two touchdowns in a home game only twice in 11 starts, and he had never eclipsed 240 passing yards in a home start.

Cashing in on the Money Down

Tennessee’s third down defense has been pretty abysmal to start the 2019 season. The good news? Florida’s hasn’t been a whole lot better, and they’ve just kept getting worse as the season has progressed.

The Vols are 13th out of 14 teams in the SEC when it comes to stopping opponents from converting on third down. Tennessee is allowing their opponents to pick up a first down 44.68 percent of the time this season. Only Kentucky (44.74 percent) has been worse in the SEC. Florida, meanwhile, has the No. 11 third down defense in the conference, giving up a first down 35.71 percent of the time.

After getting off to a great start at stopping the opposing offense on third down, Florida has gradually gotten worse the last two weeks. The Gators held Miami to just two third down conversions on 13 attempts (15.4 percent). But after allowing UT-Martin to pick up a first down 35.7 percent of the time in that game, Florida had all kinds of trouble stopping Kentucky on third down, allowing them to convert 53.3 percent of the time.

On offense, the Gators have been just as good as UT’s defense has been bad, which doesn’t bode well for Saturday’s game. Florida is getting a first down 48.4 percent of the time when they face a third down this season, good enough for fifth in the SEC. Tennessee is eighth in the conference with a 45.6 percent conversion rate.

Watch Out for the Comeback

Even if Tennessee grabs a lead in the first half against Florida or has a lead in the third quarter or early in the fourth quarter, Vol fans shouldn’t feel safe.

Dating back to last season, the Gators have gone on to win six games when trailing at some point in the second half, including both of their wins against FBS opponents this season. Florida trailed 20-17 to Miami with 14:15 left in the game but took a 24-20 lead with 8:18 remaining and wound up winning by that score. Against Kentucky, the Gators trailed 21-10 midway through the third quarter and still trailed 21-16 before Kyle Trask scored the go-ahead touchdown on a four-yard run with 4:11 left in the game to give UF a 22-21 lead. Florida would go on to win 29-21.

Tennessee, meanwhile, has had issues with collapsing already this season.

The Vols held a 13-3 halftime lead over BYU and were still ahead 16-10 with 11:41 left in the game after a Brent Cimaglia field goal. But UT would allow a huge pass play in the final seconds of regulation, allowing the Cougars to kick the game-tying field goal with one second remaining to send the game into overtime tied 16-all. The Vols would go on to lose 29-26 in double-overtime.

Even against Georgia State, Tennessee couldn’t hold on to a second half lead. The Vols led 23-21 with 12:05 to go in the game after a Brent Cimaglia field goal. But Tennessee would allow Georgia State to score 17 unanswered points before scoring a meaningless touchdown with two seconds left in the game, losing 38-30.

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